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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Human Smoke

Speaking of Nicholson Baker (as I did in my previous post), I was not aware that he has a new book out. It's a work of nonfiction (as are some of his previous books) entitled Human Smoke. Here's the New York Times book review.

Also, here's a nice profile of Baker that the Times did a few weeks ago; it also talks about the new book.

I actually just bought A Box of Matches at Borders today with the proceeds of the gift card I got for Christmas (the book is tiny and cheap, so my $25 also scored me Gillian Welch's album Revival).


lj said...

It's interesting to read that NYT review in comparison to the one I saw the other day. I'm glad that they published both a positive and a negative review. It seems like any review of such a book, compiled as much as written, is basically going to be a review of the opinion he expresses in it. I have to disagree quite strongly with that opinion. I would in general call myself a pacifist, but WWII is one war that really had to be fought. As the negative reviewer writes, speaking of the prisoners in Nazi camps, "Nowhere and at no point does Mr. Baker ever suggest, in any serious way, how their liberation might have been effected other than by force of arms."

I'm kind of puzzled by Nicholson Baker in general. I've been intending to read _The Mezzanine_ for years, every since someone (Alex?) talked it up to me. And lots of people seem to think highly of his work. But the only one of his books that I've read any of is _The Fermata_, and I don't see how anyone can call that one anything but straight up porn. If people want to say it's good as porn, fine for them, but I didn't see what made it literature.

A while back he also went on a crusade about how libraries were destroying civilization by microfilming old newspapers and throwing out the paper copies. He thought we should preserve all the paper copies, and spent a lot of his own money to try to buy and store a complete paper archive of the NYT. This was interesting to me, coming from a family of librarians. The response of librarians seemed to be, "That would be great. Where the hell do you want us to get the money to do that?" You may have noticed that most libraries are not exactly swimming in cash. In one of the recent NYT stories I see that he eventually got rid of his own paper warehouse.

In short: I dunno, Teague. He seems like a crazy to me.

teague said...

Well, good points, but I do think the discussion benefits from what the crazies bring to the table, especially when they're as skilled as Mr. Baker. I read that negative review just after making my blog post, and I do agree that WWII had to be fought, given the circumstances. But I'd like to read Baker's book as an alternative history, and I think there's probably a story to be told (beyond what's already in the accepted cannon) about how war alters even those on the right side of history and what the martial mindset led to from the Allied side that we might do well to regret (along the lines of the positive reviewer's takeaway that bombing civilians is never justified). Also, this just seems like an innovative and possibly very useful approach to a book about history.

Regarding Baker being a crazy: From the couple of NYT items I read, I didn't necessarily get the idea that he thought the war should not have been fought at all. In that profile, where he says that his views on the war "change every day", or something to that effect, it makes it seem like he isn't sure what the right course of action was. Also, I took the phrase "[pacifists] failed, but they were right" to mean that their approach to the challenge of fascism failed, but it was a principled stand -- this could just be a misapprehension on my part.

As far as the newspaper crusade goes, it's a tad impractical, but there is a lot of actual and intangible information lost when those originals are gone. And he got a university to adopt the ones he had rescued, so I guess that worked out okay. As for the pornish book, I'm going to let that one be.

So, yeah, he does seem like a crazy, but in helpful and interesting ways, in my book.