The time is coming when jocks will look suspiciously like D&D players; filling out bracket after bracket for basketball’s infamous March Madness. But that is no excuse to abandon the pursuit of literature! Recently, my pastor recommended to me the glorious world of “The Tournament of Books”. Hosted each year by The Morning News, an online magazine that publishes all the manner of great content, the Tournament of Books is suspiciously similar to the brackets we are so accustomed to seeing in the early spring, except instead of basketball teams, all the previous years best books are judged by authors, editors, and all the manner of literary-minded people. I highly recommend that you try to read as many of the books as possible; it’s almost a shoe-in that one of the books on the list is going to win a Pulitzer, and it’s a great opportunity to connect to both your inner bookworm and your brother-in-laws obsession with brackets and betting.
The first book I read on the list was fantastic. In fact, I was incredibly engrossed by it. Written by Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding is perhaps the best example of character building that I’ve come across in modern literature. It’s not just that Harbach wrote believable characters, but he wrote characters that are so well-rounded, you can’t help but feel like you know each and every one personally. Set in the tiny college of Westish, the novel revolves around the president of the university, his daughter, the captain of the baseball team, a gay intellectual dreamer, and possibly the best short stop in history. Blending all their stories together in such a way as to make self-extraction and the trip back to reality nearly impossible for the reader.
Perhaps what makes this story so compelling is the touch of fairy tale hidden in the pages within. As Henry, one of the above mentioned main characters, remarks, “you loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”
And isn’t that why we read? Or write? The reason why you’re reading this very post probably has to do with a love, an affinity, a certain passion you feel that compels you to move beyond your normal limitations. That’s the basis for all human accomplishment and knowledge; is the very art of learning and pursuing, simply for the sake of it. I know that’s why I write, and that’s also why I read. Because while I may not create the best work in literature, at least I can create something, and what I can’t create, I can read. The characters and the story, it’s all so fantastically compelling because I am drawn into it. Why? Because we all are drawn to what we understand, and what we empathize with. And in the struggle of each of the characters to understand the human condition, how can we not empathize?
Perhaps that is why I love this book so much. Even though the characters vary in age from 20 to 70, they are all growing up, discovering themselves, losing innocence and gaining knowledge. Affenlight, in falling in love for the very first, real, time in his life. His daughter Pella finding out that the world didn’t quite work out the way she had wanted it to, but that that was somehow okay. That Mike Schwartz had all the knowledge and ambition, and none of the talent, but that was okay too. That Owen is discovering life and love of his own, and of course Henry; that to be afraid of success is every star’s biggest fear, but you cannot let that outweigh your love of the game. And while this novel is full of plenty of hardship and sad moments (I had to put it down more than once to just digest and recuperate on several occasions) it’s about the beauty that’s found in all of those moments.
Like your first time you sit in the middle of a field at night, it’s a beautiful and wonderful thing (hopefully!), but yet it’ll always leave you with a touch of sadness. Not because it wasn’t enjoyable, memorable, or can never be repeated, but because it’s one of life mysteries that has been revealed to you.
Perhaps that’s the biggest tragedy of the human condition: while we strive so hard to learn the mysteries of life, we find ourselves just as dissatisfied afterwards; looking for the next mystery by which we can learn and grow. As Pella observes in the novel, “that was the idiot hopefulness of humans, always to love what was unformed. Really it made no sense. What were the old hoping the young would become? Something other than old? It hadn’t happened yet, but the old kept trying.”
We think of babies as the most beautiful creatures in the world because they are full of potential; we have no idea what they will learn and accomplish in their lives. It’s mesmerizing. Because like Pandora, we are full of curiosity, but many times after we’ve opened the countless boxes that life gives us, we wish we could go back to that infantile state of innocence; before the pitch was thrown, before the world was born unto our conscience thought, before we knew that we were human ourselves.