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'The Art of Fielding' and Our Other Favorite Campus Novels
October 2, 2011 - 8:00pm

Some readers will interpret Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding as a book about baseball, others as a book about fathers and daughters, taboo love affairs, or the intensity of male friendship. I see The Art of Fielding as one of our great campus novels.

Harbach's book is often hilarious, but something of a polar opposite to the traditional campus satire. More like a love letter to a small college. In this case the beloved Westish College, an institution described by the author as "a small, venerable, but already in those days slightly decrepit liberal arts school on the western shore Lake Michigan".

The Art of Fielding is indeed about the Westish baseball team, although you do not need to be a fan of the game (I'm not) to love the book (I did). The team is named "The Harpooners" (in honor of Westish's most famous campus visitor), and we follow the college careers of the team's best player Henry Skrimshander, his roommate and teammate Owen Dunne, Westish's president Guert Affenlight, Guert's newly returned young-adult daughter Pella (escaping a bad California starter marriage), and her new boyfriend Mike Schwartz, Henry's mentor and captain/player coach of the Harpooners.

The Westish College described in The Art of Fielding is an oasis, a safe place to return, heal and perhaps never leave. This is a view of college life that centers around the intimate physical spaces of dorms and faculty offices, dining halls, lecture halls, and ball fields. The appeal of Westish College for Harbach's characters is how little the college changes over the years, and the degree to which a whole world can exist within its gates. I think many of us who have decided to spend our adult life in a similar environment to our undergraduate and graduate years can relate to the gravity that Westish exerts.

What are you favorite campus based novels?

My list would include: Moo by Jane Smiley, Joe College by Tom Perrotta, Straight Man by Richard Russo, The Lecturer's Tale and Publish and Perish by James Hynes, and a bunch of satires by David Lodge.

I've never read Amis' Lucky Jim, or Beet by Roger Rosenblatt, although they are both on my wish list.

What are you reading?


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