dorthenors

Dorthe Nors, Save NYPL, and Blake Bailey (The Bat Segundo Show #538)

This program contains three segments. The main one is with Dorthe Nors, who is most recently the author of Karate Chop. There is also a brief Blake Bailey interview. He is most recently the author of The Splendid Things We Planned. And our introductory segment involves the Save NYPL campaign.

Guests: Dorthe Nors, Blake Bailey, members of the Save NYPL campaign, Matthew Zadrozny, members of Raging Grannies.

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Subjects Discussed: Mayor Bill de Blasio’s failure to live up to his July 2013 promise to save the New York Public Library, the greed of rich people, political opportunism, Charles Jackson, The Splendid Things We Planned, the differences between biography and memoir, being the hero of your own story, subjectivity as a great muddler, the Bailey family’s tendency to destroy cars, being self-destructive, contending with a brother who threw his life away, the problems that emerge from being cold, the differences between American and Danish winters, unplanned writing, the swift composition of Beatles lyrics, the courageous existential spirit within Swedish literature, Danish precision, the Højskolesangbogen tradition, the influence of song upon prose, Kerstin Ekman, Nors’s stylistic break from the Swedish masters, Ingmar Bergman, Flaubert’s calm and orderly life, the human-animal connections within Karate Chop, considering the idea that animals may be better revealers of human character than humans, animals as mirrors, emotional connections to dogs, the human need to embrace innocence, judging people by how they treat their pets, “The Heron,” friendship built on grotesque trust, how the gift exchange aspect of friendship can become tainted or turn abusive, writing “The Buddhist” without providing a source for the protagonist’s rage, how much fiction should explain psychological motive, the hidden danger contained within people who think they are good, how Lutherans can be duped, “missionary positions,” Buddhism as a disguise, ideologies within Denmark, when small nations feel big and smug, Scandinavian egotism, Danesplaining, whether Americans or Danes behave worse in foreign nations, buffoonish American presidential candidates, how “The Heron” got to The New Yorker, Nors’s early American advocates, being a tour guide for Rick Moody and Junot Diaz, how Fiona Maazel brought Dorthe Nors’s fiction to America, Copehagen’s Frederiksberg Gardens as a place to find happiness, happiness as a form of prestige, when happy people feel needlessly superior, Denmark’s subtle efforts to win the happiest nation on earth award, setting stories in New York, how different people react to large tomato, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, how measuring objects reveals aspects of humanity, the tomato as the Holy Grail, flour babies, why strategically minded people shouldn’t be trusted, the creepy nature of control freaks, how human interpretation is enslaved by representations, competing representations of reality, whether fiction is a more authentic representation of reality, how disturbing ideas presented in books can calm you down, exploring the Danish idea of a den to eat cookies, working with translator Martin Aitken, what other nations get wrong about Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen, superficial knowledge of Denmark, Danish writers who need to be translated, Yahya Hassan, and Danish crime fiction.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about the economy of these stories, which is fascinating. I mean, you have to pay very close attention to learn the details and to learn some very interesting twist or some human revelation in these stories. So this leads me to ask — just to start off here — I’m wondering how long it takes for you to write one or to conceive one. Is there a lot of planning that goes into the idea of “Aha! I’ll have the twist at this point!” I mean, what’s the level of intuition vs. the level of just really getting it down and burying all the details like this?

Nors: I don’t plan writing. It happens. Or I get an idea or I see something. Or there’s a line or a passage that I write down. And sometimes it just lies there for a while. Then a couple of days later, I will write another passage, perhaps for another story, and sometimes I put them together. They start doing things. But I write them pretty fast. When the idea and the flow and the voice and the characters are there, I just go into the zone and it kind of feels like I’m singing these. It’s like you find the voice for a story and you just stick to it and write it. It doesn’t take that long. Seven of these stories were actually written in a cottage off the west coast in Denmark. Two weeks.

Correspondent: Two weeks?

Nors: Yes.

Correspondent: For seven of the stories?

Nors: Seven of the stories.

Correspondent: Wow.

Nors: And then I would take long walks and I would go home. Boom. There was this story. So the writing process with this one, it was like that.

Correspondent: That’s like the Beatles writing the lyrics for “A Hard Day’s Night” on the back of a matchbox in ten minutes.

Nors: When it happens, it happens, right?

Correspondent: Well, to what do you attribute these incredible subconscious details? Are these details just coming from your subconscious and they’re naturally springing? Or are they discovered in the revision at all?

Nors: I think they come from training. Because it has something to do with the neck of the woods that I come from. Scandinavia. I was trained in Swedish literature. That was what I studied at university. And the Swedes have this very bold and courageous brave way of looking at existence. I mean, it turns big on them. And they look at the darkness and the pits of distress and everything. Then if you take that richness of existentialism, you might even call it, and pair it up with the Danish tradition — which is precision, accuracy, Danish design, cut to the core, don’t battle on forever. If you combine these two, you get short shorts with huge content that is laying in there like an elephant in a container and moving around all the time. And this style came from training. This came from reading a lot and writing a lot. Suddenly, I think I found my voice in these stories. I think this was a breakthrough for me in Denmark also. That I found out how I can combine the Danish and the Swedish tradition.

Correspondent: So by training, how much writing did you have to do before you could nail this remarkable approach to find the elephant, to tackle existence like this?

Nors: Well, I started writing at eight. And this book was written when I was 36.

Correspondent: But you didn’t have the Danish masters and the Swedish masters staring over you at eight, did you?

Nors: No. But I had the Danish song tradition. We have a book in Denmark called Højskolesangbogen. You’ll never learn how to say that. But it’s a songbook.

Correspondent: (laughs) She says confidently. You never know. I might learn!

Nors: You wanna try? But that songbook — in the real part of Denmark that I come from, all the farmers, they would use that songbook a lot. And there was no literature in my household. It was middle-class. A carpenter and a hairdresser. But this book was there. And what I learned from that was that these songs, they were written by great Danish poets and then put into music. It would be so precise. I love that book. I sang these songs. I read these poems. And then later on, there was my brother’s vinyl covers. It was Leonard Cohen. It was all these guys that he had up in his room and I could read. And a lot of the training came from that. And then later on, university, of course, and the boring part of training.

Correspondent: The analytical stuff. Well, that makes total sense. Because there is a definitive metric to these particular stories. You mentioned that they were akin to singing. And I’m wondering how you became more acquainted with this musicality as the stories have continued. And also, how does this work in terms of your novels? Which are not translated. There are five of them. And those are obviously a lot larger than a short story. So how does the musicality and that concise mode work with the novels?

Nors: Well, I think my first novel was extremely influenced by a Swedish writer called Kerstin Ekman, who I wrote my thesis on. And it was so influenced by her that I kind of shun away from it. Because I don’t want to sound like her anymore. And then on my third book, I started to find that the voice that blooms in Karate Chop — and there’s a breakaway there; it’s like a break in my writing.

Correspondent: A karate chop!

Nors: It really is! Because the first three of my novels were classic structures. They had plots and peaks and this whole Swedish abyss of existentialism and darkness. But then with this one, I broke away. And the next two novels I wrote are short novels. And they’re more experimental in their form and they’re very close to the whole idea of accuracy. And that line, that sentence, has to be so precise. And it has to sing. And it has to have voice. And it has to be just so accurate. That’s the sheer joy for me: to actually be able to write a sentence and to know people will get this.

Correspondent: This is extraordinary. Because if you’re writing a short story so quickly, and it’s not singing, what do you do? I mean, certainly, I presume that you will eventually sing in this mode that you want to. But that’s a remarkable speed there. So how do you keep the voice purring?

Nors: Well, actually, I do a lot of reading out loud while I do it. And the rhythm has to be good when I read it aloud myself. I talk a lot. I walk a lot. And I think literature like this has a lot to do with listening to how the words sound and how they work together. But that’s an intuitive thing. There’s no math in this. Either you can carry a tune or you can’t perhaps, right?

Correspondent: Sure. Absolutely.

Nors: So it’s something instinctive, I think.

Correspondent: I’m curious to know more about the tension between the Swedish existential dread and angst and the Danish identity. You touched upon this a little bit. I saw your little Atlantic soliloquy about Bergman and how you looked to him as a way of living a tranquil life and not living a wild life, which gets in the way of…well, gets in the way of living, frankly.

Nors: Exactly.

Correspondent: I’m wondering. What do you do to live or draw upon experience or to move into uncomfortable areas? Or is your imagination stronger than that? That you don’t really need the life experience. Your imagination in combination with the singing that we’re identifying here is enough to live a tranquil life? Or what? And also, I was hoping you could talk about the tension between the Swedish and Danish feelings and all that.

Nors: First of all, I try to live my life as any other human being. I just try not to really be destructive about it. I’m 43. I’m not afraid to tell you how old I am. So I tried a lot in my life and a lot of it has been dramatic. And it has been filled with emotions and breakups and stuff like that. And, of course, I draw on the experience from that. But these days, I think the discipline is very important. I don’t need more drama in my life. I don’t know why you should seek out drama. Causing pain in your life? That’s an immature thing to do at my age, I think. You can’t avoid it. It’s going to happen anyway. People you love will pass away. Your cat will be hit by a car. Or stuff like that. You don’t have to seek it out. It’s coming to you.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering if that impulse isn’t necessarily a writerly impulse, but just a human impulse. Because when we get closer to forty, we start to say, “Well, do we really want to live this way?” Our choices sometimes become a little more limited. Our responsibilities are greater. We now have a duty to other people. And so is that really a writerly thing? I mean, is the writer doomed in some sense to almost be a child to some degree?

Nors: I think you’re absolutely right. I don’t think it’s necessarily a writer thing. I think it’s a time in your life where you think that. Or you go haywire and you go right into the abyss, right? Ingamr Bergman was around 47 when this happened for him. Because he lived a pretty crazy life. Having children all over the place and women. Pretty destructive.

Correspondent: Locking Liv Ullmann up.

Nors: Yeah, exactly. Being very chaotic. An emotionally chaotic life. And then around this age, he took this path also of not living like a monk. Because he certainly didn’t. But he was just very structured and disciplined. And I enjoy that. It sounds boring to people. But I really enjoy it. Don’t need more drama in my life.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, Mooz, 40A, Tim Beets, Tim Beets, Aien, and DANB10.)

The Bat Segundo Show #538: Dorthe Nors, Save NYPL, and Blake Bailey (Download MP3)

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Save NYPL: How an Organized Movement to Stop the Destruction of Libraries is Being Ignored by Mayor de Blasio

It was a Wednesday in mid-March: the presumed wane of a long and relentless winter that had caused many fine minds to crack. Two buildings had exploded four miles northeast in East Harlem. Two more buildings dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge — the very framework of the New York Public Library system — were threatened by a fiendish desire for greed.

Only a few hours after the New York Public Library stage-managed a few beatific rays of sunshine in the form of the belated Lotte Fields, who bequeathed $6 million to the NYPL simply because she loved to read, imposing gray clouds drifted over the stunning stone edifice of the New York Public Library’s main branch. The twin lions rested regal as raindrops pelted upon sixty brave souls, gathering in a steady drench to protest the Central Library Plan, a scheme to close and sell off two vital hubs of the system — the Science, Industry and Business Library (known as SIBL) and the Mid-Manhattan branch — for a wasteful consolidation of books into a overcrowded space that is estimated to cost more than $300 million.

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Last July, Bill de Blasio — then Public Advocate, today the chronically tardy Mayor of New York — railed against the plan, lambasting the lack of “forethought to the building’s historical and cultural integrity.” But despite the vocal admonitions from the Committee to Save the New York Public Library — which gained prominent publicity a few weeks ago through a Humans of New York entry featuring a young man named Matthew Zadrozny eating chicken that went viral, the Mayor has remained steadfastly silent. His glaring inaction, together with continued meetings behind closed doors, has forced the Committee to amp up its efforts.

“The Board of Trustees of the New York Public Library is meeting today,” said Theodore Grunewald, a dapper man of the streets with horn-rimmed glasses, a bushy beard, and a three-piece purple windowpane suit. He identified himself as the Vice President for the Committee to Save the NYPL and was fond of standing next to a de Blasio cardboard cutout, a mildly unsettling likeness reminiscent of the flattened, life-size, B-grade stars that once advertised dicey action movies in video stores.

“One of the items on their agenda,” continued Grunewald, “is, no doubt, the $350 million+ costs of this project, which consists, by the way, of selling the Mid-Manhattan Library to real estate developers, then moving that facility into the Central Research Library. But in order to make room for it, they have to remove seven levels of book stacks underneath the Main Reading Room. Those books serve the Rose Reading Room. They make it possible for scholars and researchers to do their work. Their absence from this building and the banishment of 1.5 million volumes from the key research collections of the New York Public Library to off-site storage will decimate this research library as a research institution.”

Grunewald observed that the main branch, along with the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library, was one of the three greatest research libraries in the world. But unlike the other two research libraries, the NYPL is open to anyone. You do not need to show your credentials to use the facility. In many ways, this open policy makes the main branch the ultimate public library.

“This is one of the most remarkable and innovative buildings in the world,” said Charles D. Warren, an architect and President of the Committee. “Not just because of its great exterior, but because inside its stone frame is a steel structure like a skyscraper building. That’s what holds up the books. Not only does it hold up the books, but it holds up the floor of the Rose Reading Room. And to take those out completely diminishes the meaning and the purpose of this building.”

Warren claimed that the main branch was not in need of serious renovation. “New air conditioning. New fire suppression. That’s it.”

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Mass protests usually attract disparate activists. The hope is that a passion for one cause will inspire a protester to put time in another. One protester disseminated a “gift” bag featuring leaflets for an education project that had nothing whatsoever to do with the library.

But the Wednesday rally was mostly on point. It included Citizens Defending Libraries and the Library Lovers League. Representatives from each of these groups had attended Tuesday night’s city budget meeting on libraries.

I was fond of the Raging Grannies. Despite the insinuated belligerence, the Raging Grannies were a calm and lively group of women with an affinity for music.

“Sometimes we sing against the war,” said Raging Granny Judith Ackerman. “Sometimes we sing against fracking and nuclear reactors.”

But on Wednesday, the Raging Grannies came armed with a fistful of library songs, one of which can be heard below:

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There is also a small book published by the Committee — The Library of Libraries — which is being sold for $5 to help generate funds for the campaign. Publicists for the Save NYPL campaign were kind enough to provide me with a copy earlier this week. The book, described as “a parable,” is written and illustrated by Simon Verity. It contains many red hearts inserted among the prose and depicts vicious rhinos roaming the inner sanctum of the library with malicious intent. The book is an elaboration on Verity’s 2013 commentary, previously published at the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s blog.

All this represents the beginnings of a flourishing movement. But the more practical matter of getting an ostensibly progressive mayor to take time away from his hyperbolic Swedish programs to fulfill his pledge and avert the destruction of a major cultural part of New York remains a more grueling challenge. The Committee was a bit diffident on this point.

When I asked about the Committee’s efforts to contact de Blasio, Grunewald reported that the Committee was “working assiduously to reach out to him.” I asked if the Committee had heard anything from de Blasio’s office. Grunewald ignored this question, pointing to an online petition with 4,600 signatures. It was at this point that a mysterious gentleman named Jack, hearing my inquiries, suggested to Grunewald that “we should probably be getting these signs up.” I tried again as Grunewald excavated the many vivacious signs from the plastic wrap.

“Have you actually heard a single peep from him by email, by phone, or anything like that?”

“It is a concern,” said Grunewald. “We did reach out to the Community Affairs Office at City Hall. We’re waiting to hear back.”

But while the Mayor refuses to meet or return calls, the Committee has made efforts to cut through the high-paid lobbyists and consultants, finding some elected officials who are willing to talk. Committee President Charles Warren wouldn’t name anybody specific, but he seemed optimistic.

“We are trying to talk with any elected officials we possibly can,” said Warren. “We have had some very good meetings and we have some upcoming meetings with some of them. We would love to meet with the Mayor.”

Warren suggested that the Council and the Controller may be receptive to the Committee’s message. He also pointed to the State’s landmark authority over the main branch, which is still being litigated. It is still possible that the State could reject any attempt to modify the building’s structure. Warren noted that two court actions were holding up the Central Library Plan: one by a citizens group and one involving Weiss and Hiller (representing plaintiffs Edmund Morris, et al.).

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Several protesters informed me that they would take the rally to City Hall if they had to. But what remains unclear is the timetable, the manner in which the Committee is organized, and whether these efforts have any bewitching effect beyond a popular photoblog.

It turned out that Matthew Zadrozny, the aforementioned pollo-eating beefcake, was at the rally. He went out of his way to approach me. He asked if I was a reporter. I told that him I was in a way. And we chatted.

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Correspondent: Who are you in relation to the Committee?
Zadrozny: I am working with the Committee. I’ve been with the Committee since December. I’ve been attending these protests since June of last year. And every Saturday, I’m organizing the weekly work-in protests at the library. We’re asking the public to come and protest while you work by sitting in the Main Reading Room, getting your work done with a www.savenypl.org sticker on your laptop.
Correspondent: I’ve seen those protests being announced. How much turnout? I mean, that seems more of a passive-aggressive form of protesting, I think.
Zadrozny: Well…
Correspondent: This is very active, however.
Zadrozny: Today’s protest is very active. On Saturdays, we want to garner the regular users of the library and give them ways to express their outrage at what’s happening by just getting their work done with a sticker.
Correspondent: Aha.
Zadrozny: It’s as simple as that.
Correspondent: It’s protesting for introverts.
Zadrozny: Protest…not necessarily. We encourage them to email the Mayor at savenypl.org. But we also encourage people to come out afterwards, get a drink with us, and talk about the future of the library.
Correspondent: Mayor de Blasio has remained silent. So are these protests doing any good?
Zadrozny: Mayor de Blasio, as Public Advocate, came out criticizing the plan. As Mayor, it’s true. He’s remained silent. We’re still waiting to hear from him. But we’re hopeful.
Correspondent: You’re hopeful. Why are you hopeful?
Zadrozny: We’re hopeful because he took a stand as Public Advocate and we believe that he understands the impact that this would have on the city and on local communities.
Correspondent: Is it possible though that the Committee was used in a political gesture rather than an actual act of true political movement?
Zadrozny: Uh…we don’t think so.
Correspondent: Why?
Zadrozny: Because we believe that the Mayor understands that this is, in many respects, an issue of equality, of opportunity. We believe the Mayor understands that if the Mid-Manhattan and the Science, Industry, and Business Libraries close, the amount of space in the system will be reduced. We believe that the Mayor understands that if Mid-Manhattan closes, there will be less space for students in the CUNY system to study. We believe that the Mayor understands that this is bad for New Yorkers.
Correspondent: Is it possible though that the Mayor has changed his mind?
Zadrozny: (pause) We’ll find out.

[May 7, 2014 UPDATE: The New York Public Library abandoned the Central Library Plan, opting to renovate the Mid-Manhattan Library on Fifth Avenue instead. The main library is no longer under threat.]

Anders in the Flesh

Tobias Wolff’s short story, “Bullet to the Brain” concerns Anders, a critic so removed from the joys and pleasures of life that he is reduced to niggling over every ontological detail. Because of this, reality trumps his existence. The story is unspeakably tragic in its final paragraphs, as we learn that there are pleasures that Anders is incapable of remembering. I don’t know if Lee Siegel has ever read this tale, but his embarrassing appearance at the New York Public Library on Thursday night revealed a sad sack so detached from life that I could not help but empathize, even as he tried to bait me by declaring to the crowd that I wasn’t a writer.

Siegel was there to talk about Against the Machine, a book so ineptly argued that the Washington Monthly‘s Kevin Drum was forced to abandon his review, but not without offering his notes. He was joined by Nicholson Baker and Heidi Julavits. But Siegel dominated the conversation, refusing to let even the moderator Paul Holdengraber, who tried to be as gracious and as patient as he could, finish his questions. Seigel’s entitlement was evident in one petulant exchange late in the talk.

“It’s my goddam book,” pouted Siegel.

“It’s my goddam conversation,” retorted Holdengraber.

It should be observed that Siegel is 50 years old.

When the talk was done, I congratulated Julavits for being “part of the supporting cast.”

Another anti-Internet crusader, Andrew Keen, is at least aware that his tirades are something of an act. But Siegel really seems to believe that the Internet is worse than cancer, poverty, and war combined. A true thinker actually considers an adverse viewpoint or is willing to consider that he might be wrong. Siegel, by contrast, refused to accept Nicholson Baker’s examples of items from the Web that depicted art and beauty. “How can I respond to that?” he barked. When the remarkably patient Holdengraber, casually tossing around references to philosophers, attempted to ask Siegel if there was anything good about the Internet, Siegel merely said that he liked email and Amazon, and that everything else was the morass. (There is a certain hypocrisy here in Siegel’s affinity for Amazon, considering that he rails against the Internet as a commerce-driven medium.) Holdengraber tried to frame this question many times and Siegel grew agitated, insisting that he had already addressed the issue. But I must ask: what kind of human being could not find one shred of joy within billions of offerings?

Only a person thoroughly removed from linguistic pleasures would quibble with the semantics of “assclown.” It was a surprise to me to see Siegel taking umbrage with the term. “Assclown is a really funny word, though,” grinned Nicholson Baker, who did his best to try and get through to the pigheaded Siegel. But it quickly became apparent that Siegel would not be moved and I watched with some sadness as the cheery, ruddy-faced Baker shifted to profound and silent empathy for this lost soul.

Lee Siegel belongs to that miserable genus of people who defecate upon any pleasure, tear up any moment of beauty, and who cannot locate the capacity to understand another person’s thoughts or feelings. You’ve probably met a few in your time. And like them, Siegel’s a lesson on how not to live. During the Q&A session, the good Levi Asher tried to engage Siegel in a gracious manner, pointing out that the New Republic hostilities might have been troubling because they at long last revealed what his readers really thought of him. A woman attempted to respond to his points in a fair-minded manner. But Siegel would have none of this. Unable to argue competently, he proceeded to dismiss specific terms and thoughtful angles that others presented. Siegel seemed unaware that such an attitude often causes setbacks.

Spiegel spewed out more straw men than a scarecrow population on a three hundred acre pumpkin patch. At one point, Baker suggested that Siegel once had a fascination with the Internet, pointing out that he had written many articles for Slate.

“That’s a fine conceit,” responded Siegel. “That’s one of the things that makes you a great novelist. Your negative capability.”

“Negative capability? What does that mean?” asked a baffled Holdengraber.

Where Baker hinted at the fun of all of us becoming filterers because of the Internet, Siegel snapped, “I don’t need more filtering.” Ever the hypocrite, Siegel said that the Internet was laden with false personas, but bristled when asked about the sprezzatura incident. He bemoaned being called “asshole,” “douchebag,” “fucktard,” and “shithole” on the New Republic. Being called a pedophile was the last straw. (Never mind that Siegel once called James Kincaid a pedophile.) “They all had it in for me,” cried Siegel. He wanted to give them a taste of their own medicine.

“No,” said Baker, “you cannot overlap.” Baker pointed out that Siegel using the third person while pretending not to be himself went beyond the boundaries of acceptability.

Unable to offer anything of substance, Siegel then began employing inept humor. “My BlackBerry is hooked up to my heart with wires, and to my testicles. I’m on Amazon all the time, and when my numbers go up, I get an erection.”

Siegel had a few supporters in the crowd, but there was, for the most part, an uncomfortable silence after this witless barb, as if they had just observed David Brent dancing.

I now find myself staring at my many notes and feeling extremely sad. Should I tell you about Siegel’s casual racism directed at Indian call centers? Should I tell you about the way that Siegel dismissed Baker’s praise for notpretty.com, a now defunct blog written by an overweight woman trying to make sense of her place in the world, by wondering why anyone would trouble with such pedantic thoughts? Should I trouble you with Siegel’s condemnation of 2 Girls 1 Cup, which he declared the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of the Internet? (And what makes Siegel the final arbiter of what people find interesting? What gives him the right to judge?)

All this nastiness from Siegel overshadowed Baker’s sense of wonder at the photos taken by a tethered camera or Heidi Julavits’s giddy confession of looking up diseases on the Internet to abate her hypochondria. Spiegel’s spite spoiled what should have been an evening of meaningful discussion.

Siegel frequently suggested that criticism of the Internet is a good thing. I think it is too. But when you openly rail against the Web using only a few bad examples without offering a single example of anything that’s good, it’s a fallacy of insufficient statistics. It isn’t a logical position.

I’m tempted to damn Siegel on these pages. But that would involve feeding the very bitterness that Siegel thrives on. So instead, I’ll simply declare Siegel a sad and incurable Anders. A man who might one day find his assumptive illogic greeted by a far less forgiving thug and who will never remember the joys that made him a writer in the first place.

[4/16 UPDATE: In a related story, Portfolio's Jeff Bercovici reports that Lee Siegel is terrified of talking to anybody who even remotely criticizes him. Furthermore, the Bookscan number for Against the Machine, as of yesterday, is a mere 3,038 copies.]

NYPL: Nicholson Baker & Simon Winchester

On Thursday night, a crowd congregated into a subterranean hall of the New York Public Library to listen to Simon Winchester interview Nicholson Baker. Mr. Baker wore a green vest and a low-key suit. Mr. Winchester was dressed in a gaudy blue pinstriped suit and a yellow shirt, with a dark red handkerchief drifting out of his outer pocket like a haphazard eleventh-hour accessory.

nickbaker.jpgBaker was soft-spoken, effusive with his hands, and sometimes quietly gushed, particularly when talking about the “lush, colorful” nature of the New York World, one of the early 20th century newspapers that had been in his prodigious collection. Winchester was often sharp and crisp with his questioning, exuding the aura of a fussy countertenor waiting for a cadre choristers to marvel upon his ostensible magnificence, but he was good enough to point out that it was “Nick’s night.” At one point, Winchester poured water only into his glass. Baker, by contrast, filled both his own glass and Winchester’s. Winchester kept his gaze upon Baker throughout the conversation, rarely glancing to the audience. Baker, by contrast, regularly opened himself to the audience when expressing himself.

Shortly after sitting in his seat, Winchester announced to the crowd, “This is not going to be a lovefest.” But despite this pledge of pugilism, Winchester played it relatively safe. He had snide comments pertaining to Adam Kirsch’s review. Contra Kirsch, he pointed out that “stupid, but scary” seemed an appropriate line to discuss war.

Alluding to Checkpoint, Baker observed that his purpose in writing that novel was to ask a simple question: “If you think that your single action can solve the problem, is there a way that someone can talk you out of the problem?” But Baker pointed to Emily Dickinson’s maxim about telling all the truth but telling it slant. Fiction could only go so far. And thus, Human Smoke emerged from these meditations.

Baker pointed out that for every book he has written, he would generally get one third of the way into it before “something goes wrong.” Then, he sets it aside. But he had been working on a book-length history of the Library of Congress, dwelling in particular upon Archibald MacLeish, who was the Librarian of Congress in 1939. MacLeish would go onto become a key propaganda figure during the war. And thus Baker found himself immersed in “an interpretive problem.” He had to understand World War II. So he put aside this project and Human Smoke began to take shape.

In discussing the difference between his fiction and nonfiction, Baker noted, “Fear plays a large part in all this. You want to avoid exposing himself.” It was with this attitude that he tackled the more elaborate project of Human Smoke, of which he pointed out that he couldn’t do justice to the full experience of the war.

Winchester asked Baker about whether it was reasonable to rely almost exclusively on newspapers — the so-called first draft of history — for his book at the expense of historians who came later. Baker pointed out that the reporter who wrote about a major event he experienced “had the balance of things in his mind that brings you to the moment.” He cited the exploding soup cans during the bombing of Coventry — a detail that seemed particularly apposite to his framing of history. He pointed out that newspapers would reprint the entire text of a radio speech and noted that, within the letters to the editor section, one could find a great array of voices.

In dwelling upon Human Smoke‘s cast of characters, Baker expressed great curiosity about Herbert Hoover and pointed out that Victor Klemperer was “an interesting man, a sad man.” But he pointed out that just because he put a quote into the book, this did not mean that he necessarily believed in it. Of Gandhi, he observed, “Sometimes there’s a coldness that’s very disturbing.”

Baker appeared deeply troubled by World War II priorities. He said, “It was easier to fight a war against Germans than it was to allow Jewish refugees.” But he pointed out that he was not qualified. On the question of whether America knew about the Pearl Harbor invasion in advance, Baker opted to “defer to the experts.” Later in the evening, Baker said, “Who were the people who came out of the war with greatness and nobility? The Jews.” And there was an uncomfortable silence from the audience, who began to grow a bit restless.

When I interviewed Mr. Winchester in late 2006, he insisted to me that he was a historian, not a journalist, and expressed umbrage at my notion that he was “covering” the 1906 earthquake, pointing out that historians look back on events with “perspective.” This perspective, however, was not particularly evident last night.

Four of his questions pilfered very specific points that were presented during the Human Smoke roundtable discussion — all, of course, without reference. Not only did Winchester read aloud the exact same section from Checkpoint that was referenced on these pages, but he also brought up Jeanette Rankin, the controversy involving the Treaty of Versailles (raised by Colleen Mondor), and the efforts by Cardinal Clemens von Galen to suspend the T-4 program. I wondered if Winchester had spent that afternoon Googling to prepare for a book that had slipped his mind since he blurbed it many months ago.

There was a telling indicator of this propensity during the post-discussion Q&A. Asked about Human Smoke, Mr. Winchester pointed out that he had problems with Baker’s book, but that he would defend his right to write it. The delightful and quick-thinking Paul Holdengräber pointed out that Winchester’s line had originated from Voltaire.

Despite these quibbles, I actually liked Winchester. He was dry and mostly unsmiling, save through a few belabored grimaces that seemed more directed at the CSPAN cameras dutifully videotaping this conversation for Book TV than the audience who had shelled out $15 a head to see this. But he was quite entertaining as a Jeremy Paxman-style interviewer. At one point, he asked Baker point blank about the apparently unquestionable natural impulses that cause people and creatures to kill, citing a gorilla video that had been emailed to him, and some incident involving chickens on his cozy farm in Connecticut as evidence of these apparent impulses. He even managed to find a way to name drop Tom Brokaw — “who is a friend and who I like.” Winchester was an enjoyable blowhard, more Phineas Barnum than Phineas Finn. And juxtaposing his blustery presence with the more empathic Baker worked quite well.

Despite revealing himself later to be a dedicated Malthusian (and this charge seemed more a piece of contrarian theater than bona-fide ideology), Mr. Winchester partially acquitted himself when he bailed Baker out as he was responding to a question from the audience about whether America should now begin negotiating with Islamic fundamentalists. As Baker fumbled for an answer, Winchester quickly pointed out that the Northern Ireland crisis was resolved by talking the issue out through back doors.

As the crowd dissembled, Winchester ran up and down the signing line, balancing books like a juggler signed on for a circus at the last minute. I kept wondering whether he was carrying out some intriguing one-man dramatization of a Tom and Jerry cartoon, but this was not the case. He asked a few folks in the queue if anyone else wanted him to sign his book so that he could go home.

Baker appeared a bit worn out by all the publicity he’s been doing for Human Smoke. But despite his energies waning near the end, he maintained a great humility and offered some lively remarks for a book that is likely to keep fanning the flames of controversy for quite some time.