Chad Harbach's first novel is about much, much more than baseball. But the sport -- and a small college player's search for perfection -- is the driving force of the tale. Harbach has a great feel for the nuances of baseball, and even readers who aren't sports fans will come away with an understanding of the physical and psychological demands of the game. Harbach says he wasn't much of a player himself, but he clearly knows the feel of the ball in your hand, the smell of a diamond's freshly cut grass; the mix of hard work and idleness in practice, the adrenaline rush of a big game.
"The Art of Fielding" is the rare book that provides an intimate look at a sport, while transcending it. Another that comes to mind is "Lord of Misrule," Jaimy Gordon's remarkable tale about a small-town horse racing track.
On the other hand, I was disappointed in another recent read: "Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn't Want to Be One" by Mark Kurlansky. The book is part of the Jewish Lives series, so it's understandable that it would focus on Greenberg's relationship to his faith and his decision to sit out a key late season game that fell on Yom Kippur. That was well-told. But there was so little baseball action -- so little feel for the game -- that I came away feeling a bit empty.
Read Kurlansky's book to learn about Greenberg. Read Harbach's to learn about baseball.