The Charms of Literary Arousal

by J.C. Hallman
Simon & Schuster, 288 pages

I first heard of Nicholson Baker not long after I was released from the hallowed corral of higher education. I was in San Francisco at the time, living out the third of my thirteen adventurous years there and working for a slightly sinister attorney. I had learned from the newspapers and the alt-weeklies that a bearded man with a soft sussurating voice had a rustling sword to wield against the dazzling main library that had just replaced the original damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake. The crackling glitz of digital catalogs and sleek architecture designed by the same man who gave us the Jacob Javits Convention Center’s echolalic headaches had arrived with a soul-crushing toll. The San Francisco Public Library was in the process of discarding its books, claiming that there wasn’t enough space in this new commodious sanctum for the whole collection. Moreover, the library was tossing out its analog card catalog, viewing it with the same disdain as last week’s banana peels and the previous weekend’s sticky tsunami of used condoms. In an age before Wikipedia and e-books, this was sacrilegious to anyone who cared about knowledge.

Baker became something of a one man force against these disheartening developments. He sued the library. He conducted a clandestine expedition with a few pals to sneak into the old library, where he measured the catalog’s dimensions to debunk the library officials’s claims. It became clear that Baker was a preservationist and an eccentric rabble-rouser, perhaps the literary world’s answer to Ray Davies. It is safe to say that I was smitten by these gestures. Baker was precisely the kind of writer I needed to read. I had no idea at the time that his work would eventually mean a great deal to me.

I started with Vox, Baker’s 1992 phone sex novel, which I knew that Monica Lewinsky had purchased as a gift for Bill Clinton. At the very least, I counted on tawdry titillation. These were, after all, the days when streaming porn involved a badly pixelated two minute video clip crawling through a creaky phone line at 56K, freezing into a blur at some inopportune moment. It was a very embarrassing epoch for pre-Tinder pioneers hoping to ride the edge of a new frontier. What I discovered in Vox was a surprisingly thoughtful study of loneliness, with two people circling around their lustful feelings to reveal the full panorama of their intimacies. The big clue was the way Vox‘s Jim referred to the male member as his “bobolink,” his “sperm-dowel,” and his “Werner Heisenberg.” That Jim could not bring himself to say “cock” or “dick” or even Eric Idle’s “one-eyed trouser snake” was a noble revelation on how those who are insatiably curious cannot always find solace in the explicit. And this was a fascinating predicament: how could educated, articulate people with randy instincts express themselves when the modal vernacular left little to the imagination? Sex wasn’t something that could just be ignored. Were there others out there who faced the same predicament?

I continued on with The Fermata, which involved a man named Arno imbued with the power to stop time through quite specific analog elements: by the snap of his fingers or by spooling an elaborate thread around a washing machine. Arno, who is incapable of writing his autobiography, stops time to see women naked and, in what was considered a notorious literary moment in 1994, to masturbate on a woman’s eyelashes. But like Vox, these sexual fantasies actualized in print concealed larger longings to feel and connect. What was so interesting about this novel was the way in which words like “heart” had been almost totally plucked for the sexual realm (“clit-heart beats,” “heart-shaped ass-curve,” “peep to his heart’s content”), leaving little room for the earnest and dowdy ways in which these words had been used before. (Even Arno becomes dissatisfied with the word “erotica,” substituting “rot” in its place.) Baker, who would later write a very long and fascinating essay about the historical usage of “lumber” in prose and poetry, was clearly someone who cared deeply about language and the way that gushing souls were drawn together through it. Yet he seemed to be making a larger point about how unbridled fantasies contributed to limitation, almost as if embarrassment had to flee somewhere well beyond the vanilla. (2011’s House of Holes — a comparatively late entry in what can be snugly dubbed Baker’s “sex trilogy” — would subvert this idea altogether, coming close to Samuel R. Delany’s notions of pornotopia with its tree copulation, groan rooms, sapient creatures assembled from naughty bits, and horny dismembered arms.)

And then there were the other Baker novels, such as The Mezzanine, Room Temperature, and A Box of Matches, that offered rich and beautiful tapestries composed from the pedestrian. In The Mezzanine, Baker had performed the seemingly impossible feat of liberating our daily world from Madison Avenue with his elegant and joyful descriptions of bathroom stalls, the sensation of plastic bags, and vacuums making “swaths of dustless tufting lean in directions that alternately absorbed and reflected the light.” Yet for all his precision in depicting quotidian consciousness, he was highly inexact in recalling Updike’s prose from memory in U & I, a zany and uncategorizable book somewhere between personal essay and cultural writing about Baker’s mania for John Updike. Any Baker fan was forced to wonder what united these various obsessions, but there was always a benign quality to Baker’s prose that made some of his seemingly creepy pastimes feel quite harmless and, indeed, a bit liberating. (It is worth observing that Baker himself is an exceedingly kind man: one who was even gracious enough to participate in a roundtable discussion of his controversial book, Human Smoke, that appeared on these pages in 2008.)

Perhaps this was what books were meant to do. It is one thing to read a good yarn, but it is quite another to find a volume that demands that readers feel more passionately about the world around us, simply by dint of robust observation kindled by literary bellows. Joyce, Woolf, Murakami, and Susan Minot’s Rapture have all gone to this place, stretching out minutes of life over dozens of pages, and often lacing their tender contributions with the libidinous. But maybe the connection to sex suggested that palpable obsession in any form was ineluctably arousing.

* * *

Perhaps it was inevitable that someone would do for Baker what Baker did for Updike. In B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, J.C. Hallman has contended with Baker’s work in a highly personal and endearingly alarming way, pulling out his flopping Richard with flair and humor. The book includes detailed investigation of Baker’s author photos, a two column chart comparing Room Temperature‘s Mike with Baker that runs just under three pages, and an axe to grind against Martin Amis (who once griped to Baker that he had used “strum” — featured in Vox — as shorthand for masturbation in London Fields, even though there is no mention of “strum” at all in Amis’s novel*). Hallman is decidedly more confessional and more recklessly zealous than Baker. We’re not even twenty pages into the book when Hallman reveals that, as a teacher, he feels “[t]here are women in your classes that you can’t actually wait to get and home and masturbate to.” He is also quite libertine in the way he describes his girlfriend Catherine’s orgasms. But behind all these unapologetic lunges for the curtain separating a febrile and almost pornographic relationship to books from a common reading experience is a free association that, with its grab bag embrace of the Brothers James and James Agee’s A Death in the Family, offers a compelling prima facie argument for offbeat autobiographical criticism. Or as Hallman puts it, after quoting David Simpson’s “Speaking Personally” — a huffy response to Jane Tompkins’s “Me and My Shadow”:

In other words, what one should do is ignore reality so as to understand the self that exists in reality, the self that must be theorized about. A general lack of enthusiasm for excretory activity perhaps explains why traditional critics often wind up just so full of shit.

Tompkins was rightly criticizing the literary world’s failure to allow for a certain strain of highly personal criticism, of being “squeezed into a straitjacket” where words like “epistemology” and “hermeneutics” are crammed into a dull academic stock made for an increasingly flavorless soup. But is it possible that the self is the new critical triangulator? That writing about books in a provocatively personal way, in which arousal is very much part of the expressive process, might yield new forms of excitement and interpretation?

Hallman’s book has been received coldly by a few critics, who have become a bit obsessed with money shot imagery in their vituperative assessments. Perhaps it is because Hallman is either brave or foolhardy enough to articulate his ardor on a level rivaling a Vivid Entertainment production:

Metaphorically speaking, I want Nicholson Baker to come on my face, and to keep coming on my face, again and again — and isn’t that all any reader should want, isn’t that the explicit lodged way deep down in the implicit? Wouldn’t that — same-sex trust and acceptance, particularly among aggressive-prone men — amount to the beginning of a better civilization? I want Nicholson Baker to ejaculate all over my face, and I don’t care if it’s about power, and I don’t care if I’m left puffing and spluttering to keep it out of my mouth. I want Nicholson Baker to keep spewing all over my face until I can’t possibly take it anymore.

I certainly never felt this way reading Baker, although I am pretty sure that I possess reading kinks that are far more disturbing than J.C. Hallman’s. The fierceness of this confession shouldn’t discount the other vital part of hooking up with an author through reading. For much as Vox and The Fermata established that intimacy is based on more than one’s cork popping in a froth of joyful juices and buoyant shouts, literary arousal also includes the conversations you have while lying naked in bed before, during, or after being aroused.

There is one point in B & Me when Hallman has some distressing idea, one conveyed solely through gossip, that Baker had written a book denying the Holocaust. But Human Smoke‘s true purpose is to boldly suggest that pacifist actions might have contributed to stopping the loss of lives or preventing war. This makes Hallman’s relationship with Baker akin to that of someone asking a lover’s previous sexual partners if there are any irksome personality qualities or troublesome STDs that he should know about.

And perhaps this is why Hallman himself must disclose his own sexual history with Catherine or the story behind the “hunchback” cyst on his back. If he wishes to consummate meaningful literary arousal, then this airing of personal laundry is an inescapable part of the package. He uses loaded words like “interchangeable” and “tool” and even invites Baker to a bed and breakfast, but, while Hallman is keen to tell all to the reader, he is not so willing to investigate his own gushing complicity in the literary partnering, even as he sees his real life partner Catherine start to tire of his Baker relationship. Hallman’s feelings for Martin Amis are perfectly understandable: that of a man condemning his lover’s ex-boyfriend. But intense literary arousal — as I have learned during the last two years I have studied Joyce — often involves an exclusive relationship leaving little room for being polyamorous. Shouldn’t literary arousal be open enough to allow for sleeping around? Reading, as it turns out, is just as complicated as hooking up in real life. That doesn’t make it any less thrilling and, under the right circumstances, pleasantly scandalous. The one thing I’ll always know is that anyone who has Nicholson Baker as a notch on their belt is likely to be good in the sack.

* — A Google Books search, an Amazon “Search Inside the Book” query, and a plain text file search confirms that Amis never used “strum” in London Fields, which Hallman also reports in his book. Indeed, there is an inexplicable hostility towards Baker among writers in Amis’s immediate circle of friends. In Will Self’s mediocre novel, Walking to Hollywood, Baker is needlessly dissed: “…and I thought of Baker himself, with whom, a decade before, I had shared a stage at a similar book festival in Brighton. I remembered how pinheaded he seemed — considering the size of his thoughts….” Christopher Hitchens also wrote a damning review of Human Smoke in the New Statesman, calling Baker “self-satisfied” and stating that he “grew increasingly impatient with Baker’s assumption of his own daring transgressiveness.” These are curiously personal slams, perhaps a mystery that will remain as unanswered as the motivations behind Baker’s brief move to the UK. But if reading is a plausible form of arousal, the phrase “lie back and think of England,” suggesting an unadventurous torpor related to national identity, may also account for the hostility.**

** — In an effort to settle the “strum” controversy, Evan Schaeffer (and a few others by email) have pointed to Calum Marsh’s review in The New Republic, in which Marsh observed that “strumming” appeared in a similar context within Money: “Hello again. Well, here we all are, lying flat on our backs and strumming ourselves like bent Picasso guitars.” Mr. Marsh is correct, but Martin Amis is not the first person to use “strumming” as a sexual euphemism. According to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, “strumming” was first used in a sexual context in the 19th century:


Additionally, “strum” was recorded in copulative usage in William Ernest Henley’s Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, Volume 7 (published in 1904, some eighty years before Amis’s Money):


The phrase “strum the banjo” has long been in slang use, although the etymological texts I consulted don’t have a precise date of origin for its first use as a masturbation euphemism. While it is doubtful that Amis was the first to use “strum” in this solipsistic context, it is indeed quite odd that he would declare first coinage, much less condemn Baker for his usage (especially when Baker included many other sexual euphemisms in Vox).

I reached out to Nicholson Baker for comment. Baker replied, “I admire Martin Amis, and if there’s anyone in the literary bowlerama I’d like to have used the word ‘strum’ before I did, it would be him.”

Nicholson Baker (The Bat Segundo Show #520)

Nicholson Baker is most recently the author of Traveling Sprinkler. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #200.

Author: Nicholson Baker

Subjects Discussed: Attempting to talk in the early hours of the morning, the many beginnings offered by poems vs. the many beginnings offered by the Internet, digital enjambment, tobacco dip videos, Paul Chowder’s songwriting, Baker’s protest songs, Method writing, the development of song lyrics over the last few decades, Dance Music Manual, when dance songs go on too long, Lopoerman, loops, buying a shotgun mic from B&H, phones that beep during conversations, being a proponent of the kick drum, the theology of percussion, how fiction and music composition create different principles in drawing from other work, Medea Benjamin, Glenn Greenwald, the importance of sticking it out, Paul Chowder’s politics vs. Jay’s politics in Checkpoint, Edward Snowden, the difficulty of writing controversial books, when world leader surnames become too incantatory, attending political protests, political recoil, a highly attuned relationship to language and its effect upon political commitment, language as overused wooden blocks, songs as a way of taking back familiar words, Obama’s kill list, synesthesia, stretching out a word to melodic effect, Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” Tracy Chapman’s “Change,” how repetition causes you to look at a word in a different way, Paul Chowder’s “The Right of the People,” the discomforting sight of protesters who are pepper sprayed, peaceful assembly, singing the Bill of Rights, cultural appropriation, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” Thicke’s injunction against Gaye’s family, Ray Parker’s “Ghostbusters” and Huey Lewis’s “I Want a New Drug,” the scant chords and melodies available in pop music, the swift creation of “Blurred Lines,” George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” Baker’s views on the movie music business, why Hans Zimmer is a hack, Baker’s appreciation for Paul Oakenfold and trance, the bassoon, how Harry Gregson-Williams ripped off John Powell’s score for The Bourne Identity, Carol King, efforts to duplicate songs in the 1970s, “Narrow Ruled,” putting a dot on a margin to note a passage vs. favoriting a tweet, filling notebooks with quotes from other books, analog vs. digital forms of “signing someone else’s mind signature,” anthologists who hunted for Shakespearean gems, Logan Pearsall Smith, the downside of typing too fast, forgetting handwriting, the foreign nature of writing a thank you note in the digital age, the importance of exertion, articles about the end of handwriting, handwriting vs. keyboards, how reading things aloud slows time down, Baker’s recent Harper’s essay arguing against Algebra II, the socioeconomic impact of abolishing Algebra II, Jose Vilson’s response to Baker’s article, knowledge vs. the way teachers express knowledge, Algebra II as a requirement that increases human suffering, turning core subjects into electives, educational budget cuts, compulsory education, negative high school experiences, fallacious approaches to teaching the essay, E.B. White, Robert Benchley, Baker’s attendance at the School Without Walls, the burden of having to know and do things that you don’t like, Dan Kois’s unpardonable anti-intellectualism, the importance of challenging perceptions, the importance of sitting still, migration routes of the Goths through Europe, including more choice into education, living a life where nobody is asking you to do anything, the trancelike state of being bored, House of Holes, Samuel R. Delany’s notion of pornotopia, Katie Roiphe’s advocacy of House of Holes, why so much of literary sex is a downer, House of Holes as realist novel, Grindr, Tinder, small town life, Yellow Submarine, Baker’s appreciation for Schmidt’s soliloquies in The New Girl, Baker’s appearance on The Colbert Report, why penis is an insufficient name, using the deep hindbrain words, “The Penis Song,” Victorian pornography that appears throughout many of Baker’s novels, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Librivox and audio books, the presence of radio in the Paul Chowder novels, how audio reveals the inflection of words, the inclusion of more Chowder lead-ins in Traveling Sprinkler, Baker’s secret stash of personally recorded radio bumpers, and talking into field recorders.


Correspondent: In The Anthologist, the first of these two novels, there’s this moment where Paul Chowder describes how he’s fond of books of poems. Because no matter where he flips around, he can always be at the beginning. And as he says, “Many, many beginnings.” It occurred to me that this is also the perfect description for the Internet, which actually appears quite prolifically and is almost a cultural repository in the second Paul Chowder book, Traveling Sprinkler. You seem to have, in many cases, swapped the names of poets and real people from The New Yorker with people in bookstores, such as the great Miss Liberty at River Run Books.

Baker: Oh yes.

Correspondent: And, of course, I actually found a lot of those tobacco dip videos on YouTube. You were actually quoting directly from them.

Baker: Oh sure! You don’t want to make those up.

Correspondent: (laughs) You don’t want to make those up?

Baker: No, they’re too great as is.

Correspondent: Well, you’ve written a good deal about the Internet in essays. And I have to ask: to what extent do you feel that the Internet has almost replaced or augmented poetry? There’s certainly plenty of digital enjambment out there. So I’m wondering about this.

Baker: (laughs) Digital enjambment. What a great idea! Well, I think what the Internet has done is that it’s enormously enriched our lives. And it does have that feeling of pieces, many of them. Breaks. Fragments. All over the place. And poems also are short and fragmentary and you kind of come across them and have that moment and go away. But I guess the difference is that I use the Internet — I kind of dip in constantly to learn things. Whereas when I’m in a mood to read a poem or when I just happen to read a poem, it slows everything down. And it has kind of the opposite effect on me. It doesn’t make me want to leap off in eighteen directions. It makes me want to just stop and say, “Oh my god! That pulled that thing apart! That held me still.” So it has that opposite effect. So the two are identical. In some ways, they’re in competition with each other. But in some ways, they’re similar.

Correspondent: What’s the future of poetry with these promising distractions? This enjambment of a different sort?

Baker: The future of poetry is independent, I think, of the way that we publish things. And it’s probably more closely linked to the future of pop music than some poets would want to admit. Because they want to have that division. They want to say that song lyrics aren’t poems. But obviously the two are short clumps of words that often rhyme or have some kind of metrical thing happening. And certainly the future of song lyrics is terrific, I think, isn’t it? I mean, have we ever — certainly in the history of my life — has there ever been a time when you are just constantly discovering new songs and old songs and comparing things? These great websites that tell you the history of a certain lyrical idea. I mean, it’s really happening. So I would think that the strength of that thread, or that theme, is going to propel poetry forward. And then there’s also kind of the realization that some of modernism was a mistake. Not all of it, but some of it. It was aggressive in the wrong way and was kind of disturbingly exclusive and rejecting of comprehensibility and all that. So the poets I like have learned from all of those terrific things that happened in the early part of the 20th century, but they want to be read, you know?

Correspondent: Paul Chowder’s songwriting is not a new development. There is, in fact, this song in The Anthologist that goes “I’m in the barn / I’m in the bar-harn / I’m in the barn in the afternoo-hoon.”

Baker: (laughs) Yes.

Correspondent: So why do you think songwriting turned out to be more of a muse than poetry for Paul Chowder this time? Was it from jumping off some of the hip-hop schemes that you were analyzing in The Anthologist? You were, of course, recording these songs and putting them onto YouTube, which many of us were watching with some degree of curiosity. So to some degree, I guess, this is a form of Method writing. I’m wondering how Chowder’s sensibilities as his affinities permutated here.

Baker: Well, I think Chowder is a guy who would love to be a better poet than he is. And he’s looking for a way out. He’s looking for a way out of a kind of situation in which he’s trapped in the level he can reach as a poet. So he’s looking for a way out. But he’s also looking for a way back in. And, I mean, I certainly share this with him. I share 90% of his thoughts. So I can just say that poetry is beautiful and calls to you. And then there’s moments where you just think, “God, I need something different. Something more. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand why so many people do it. All that feeling.” And getting back to music and trying to fit two art forms together is really hard and excitingly challenging. It was for me to imagine him as a lyric writer, not a very good one. But you know, he does his best. Because song lyrics are so different. They have to be simpler. And when you’re writing song lyrics and trying to match them to a melody or invent a melody, the words that come out are different than the words that come out if you’re just sitting with a typewriter. So I think it was just the thrill of the chase. It was the excitement of the idea that this maybe is the key. So if he, and if I, can possibly write some tunes or get some rhythms going that have a certain bouncy danceability or hummability or something? Wow! That is fun! And then manage to get some words going. I mean, it felt to me, once I started to play with music again, like a new chapter in my life. And so when I was writing the book, and I was writing the novel and songs at the same time…

Correspondent: Did you also become an astute scholar of all the various dance genres much like Paul Chowder? Did you go down that rabbit hole as well?

Baker: Yeah! Sure! Of course I bought a textbook called Dance Music Manual.

Correspondent: So it was actually that textbook.

Baker: Oh yeah. I studied it! Very, very thick. A very heavy textbook. And dance music really puzzles me in a way. Still I don’t really fully get it. Because the songs are too long. I love to listen to a loop. And I’ll happily listen to sixteen bars of a loop and then another layer comes in. And 32. At some point, I want the song to be over. And I think that because I grew up with the Beatles, I want it to be over at around two and a half to three minutes. And dance songs, because you’re supposed to dance to them and they are segued with other songs, go on a very long time. And so I really still haven’t learned the form of the dance song. But when I’m writing, I listen to them all the time.

Correspondent: But all of the songs that you did as Nick Baker get into that kind of trance state of a constant loop and a constant series of rhythms where you’re sort of promulgating some kind of concern about politics or something along those lines. Some of them go on quite long as well. So is the loop really the way to identify the dance song? I mean, did you start off with loops? I almost don’t want to direct you to Looperman. Are you familiar with this site? They have all sorts of loops you can use for free that I use for this particular program.

Baker: Really? Well, I don’t ever use loops. I use Logic Pro.

Correspondent: Okay.

Baker: Which is Apple’s music software. Just as my character does in the book. It’s $200. Tons of instruments. Fantastic deal. And it does everything that you need it to do. Although it isn’t Pro Tools, which is the industry standard and all that. Which is $600. And I couldn’t afford that.

Correspondent: Did you actually go down [like Paul Chowder in Traveling Sprinkler] and get a shotgun mic from B&H? (laughs)

Baker: Absolutely.

Correspondent: You did! Okay.

Baker: All that software.

Correspondent: You had that similar problem of “Oh, do I need to lay down a lot of money for this great mic?” Wow!

Baker: No. All my theories about the importance of stereo sound versus mono sound I just dumped into the book. I believe in stereo. I’m a strong believer in stereo. So I bought the mic not from B&H — oh, yes! I bought it, but not from — yeah, I bought it from B&H!

Correspondent: Wow.

Baker: And in fact, I thought of bringing it along. Because it’s kind of soothing when you’re traveling to do some music. And I thought I could practically fit the mic stand. The mic is about three feet long. And it’s pretty durable. So I thought I could put it in the suitcase. And then I thought, “Nah. Something might happen.”

Correspondent: Is it the Rode mic?

Baker: I can’t remember. It’s ATK or something.

[Mysterious beeping sound.]

Baker: I’m sorry. That’s me. I’ll turn this off.

Correspondent: (clutching his dying smartphone, which has less than 5% battery life) No, it’s actually me. Or is it you?

Baker: I think it’s me telling me. It’s telling me that tomorrow I’ll be in Washington DC. (laughs) How helpful!

Correspondent: I’m turning mine off too.

Baker: The DC Book Fest.

Correspondent: My power’s actually about to go out. So there you go. So okay…

Baker: Okay. So let me. Okay. So loops. There are different ways to think about the word “loop.” And most dance songs, and a lot of pop songs these days, are built on the looping principle. But what you don’t want to do is take somebody else’s loop and say, “Ooh! That sounds good. I’ll use it in my song.” Or at least I don’t want to do that. Because you want to build something that is your own. So I usually start with a little piano riff that goes on for four or eight bars. A little something. A chord. Just an interesting chord. Or I start with maybe a hi-hat sound that sounds just a little bit odd and interesting. Or maybe some percussion that has a bit of pitch to it that then makes me think of another sound. Then I layer, using a lot of trial and error and a certain amount of just dumb luck and whatever; incompetence — layers over that. Until I have, say, fifteen layers of sound. And that’s my loop. And the nice thing, when it goes right, is that the loop is in all of its fully official, big time, near-the-end-of-the-song glory. But you might want to take out five tracks from that when you start. And, of course, the kick drum might come in. And suddenly, sixteen bars along or something.

Correspondent: You’re a big proponent of the kick drum.

Baker: Everybody is. You can’t not be a proponent of the kick drum!

Correspondent: (laughs)

Baker: Except that it’s kind of an embarrassing term. You know, “kick drum.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Baker: It sounds sort of like the da-da-da-dum-dah-dum.

Correspondent: You make it sound like John Philip Souza or something.

Baker: Yeah. It sounds like that. But what it is, it’s a massive kind of a chest-vibrating sound that happens every beat or however you want to vary it. And once you get into this world, the theology of kick drum sounds.

Correspondent: A theology?

Baker: The number, the thousands of tiny variations. And the way you can make a chesty kick drum, but with this element of a pop on the top so that you can still get the sense of something bursting, but also get that subwoofer whomp. All of that. People think about that. You have no idea how seriously people take that. Well, you probably do. You’re into music.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, this is really interesting that in your own particular music, you basically say no to taking another loop. And yet in the fiction, we’ve established that you’re drawing very close from reality and from real world examples. Which might almost be like taking a loop and meshing it with another loop.

Baker: Interesting.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering why music allows one set of principles and fiction offers another one. Or is it really simply the expression of a sentence that offers the distinction between music taking loops and fiction taking from cultural reference and so forth?

Baker: Well, yeah, that’s really an interesting thought. I think that I’m always reluctant to quote anything without quotation marks. So I don’t believe in it. The hip-hop world uses sampling a lot, where you take a number of nice sounds — the riff, maybe the chorus — and do things. And it’s obviously brilliant. And they’ve made such great discoveries and combinations. It’s just not something that I’m ready to do yet. I think it’s because, as a writer, I can’t bear the idea that, even involuntarily, I would without remembering quoting somebody else’s phrase and thinking it was my own. It’s just not something that I ever, ever want to do.

Correspondent: Unless you devise a specific sound that can be offered in lieu of a quotation mark.

Baker: (laughs) Who?

Correspondent: A very special percussive sound that nobody else has, that everybody agrees upon. “Alright! Here’s the time where we take from a 70s Funkadelic song.” (laughs)

Baker: Exactly.

Correspondent: There’s another thing I wanted to ask you about. In Traveling Sprinkler, Paul Chowder name-checks both Medea Benjamin and Glenn Greenwald. There’s an interesting line. And this was written before Edward Snowden. “What good does it do me to read Glenn Greenwald’s excellent blog? He’s right about everything and I’m glad he’s doing it. But it doesn’t seem to have any effect.” Well, au contraire!

Baker: (laughs)

Correspondent: Granted, Paul is talking about this in relation to Roz. But Paul Chowder to me is more of a short-sighted version of your typical Baker hero, who is really taking in the world and seeing it with a kind of wonder. And also, it’s not unlike what he said of podcasters, where he says, “They’ll keep on pumping it out. But then they’ll puff up and die.”

Baker: (laughs)

Correspondent: To which we got into a minor disagreement. But that got cleared up. But I actually wanted to ask you. Why do you think that Paul Chowder does not really appreciate the long-term effect of keeping at it and sticking at it? Because that is just as much a part of the journey of being an observer, of being an intellectual seeker, of being a curious type. And so that is very curious why this is outside his temperament.

Baker: Well, I think you put it beautifully, Ed. You have to be patient. You have to keep saying the things over and over again. But that doesn’t mean we all don’t have moments of despair. Which happened, say, in the ramping up to the first Iraq War. All those brilliant op-ed pieces. All that marching. All that sustained argumentation that made the case that this was a mistake was for naught. It was going to happen. It was scheduled, planned, whatever. The launch date was planned. And it happened. And that filled me with a kind of despair. Because I thought, What is the function of rational argument and public discourse when it’s just not going to work? When there’s that feeling, that wave of almost frenzy or a thirst for war. And I think it’s worth including that sentiment if we’re going to be true to our own political lives, which are mixtures. You go up and down. Sometimes you think, “Well, my god, we’re making progress and good ideas are coming out. And good people like Medea Benjamin are saying incredibly powerful, moving things and brave things.” And then it all seems for naught. And it doesn’t get anything accomplished. So you then feel that despair. So I just had Chowder follow the ups and downs of that. But I’ve hinted that towards the end. You know, there’s a moment where his friend Tim gets arrested. And he says, “I’m glad Tim is writing the book.” And the point is that Paul Chowder is too caught up in his own worry, his own love complexities, and the mixed-upness of his own life to do something sustained like write a book against drones. But he’s very glad someone else is doing it. And at some point, he thinks that maybe he can actually do something. In my case, I’m trying to, in a sneaky way, do the same thing. I’m trying to say, “I’m going to present you with a human life.” And this is a person that, if it works, you’re going to recognize this guy. You’re going to see some things about people in this person that you think, “Oh, that’s familiar.” And you’re going to see him struggle and have dissatisfaction and give you some little political ideas to think about. So by the end of the book, I’m not going to have tired you out or disgusted you with overpoliticizing, I hope. Although maybe I redlined there. But I’m going to have included that component in a fictional life. So that the aim of the book was political in a sense. It was to try to write some sort of anti-intervention book, but to do it singingly. To sing the pain a bit and include all the other distractions that a normal life has.

Correspondent: But there are two interesting points here. Because both Glenn Greenwald and Medea Benjamin this year — I mean, when Medea Benjamin basically shouted out to Obama in a way that nobody else would, suddenly, at that moment, she was taken seriously after all these years of ridicule. Same goes with Greenwald. You centered on the two figures who stuck it out and actually became a vital part, I think, of the political discourse. Simultaneously, I’m also thinking of Chowder’s vacillating political position and comparing it to Jay from Checkpoint, where he wants to assassinate Bush for the good of humankind. And that also is a kind of intervention as well. And I’m curious why every political argument that you approach in your fiction tends to involve an intervention of some kind. It’s either an intervention that comes from within or an intervention that comes from without. I mean, is this really just kind of what you see as the American impulse right now? I mean, we’re clearly not in the streets complaining about drones or complaining about the surveillance state and all that. But it is something that this conviction does face intervention in all of your fiction, I think.

Baker: Well, first, I totally admire and — I mean, who wouldn’t admire what Glenn Greenwald did with Snowden? Which was all before. But I love his blog. I admire it so much. I’m terribly jealous of his ability to stick with it and to be patient and to go after and to say similar things, but bring new facts into it. And Medea Benjamin — I mean, I just can’t stand it. She’s so brave. And I love that.

Correspondent: You’re envious of the bravery?

Baker: Well, you know, I have been to marches a little bit. And I published a political book. Human Smoke was a very controversial book. And it’s really hard. It really hurts sometimes. The criticism, the sneering, the unfairness. The kind of misrepresentation of what you’re trying to do in order to make you into a figure of ridicule. In order to make whatever you have to say not have any weight. You know, it does hurt. And it’s hard. And I can only do it once in a while. And even when I’m doing it, I’m doing it about the Second World War! I’ll write a few letters and sign some petitions and I’ll march. I mean, I was up in Portland at an anti-Syrian intervention. Candlelight vigil. Lighting candles. But I’m going to retreat to another time and try to make the argument a different way. I’m trying to undermine the militarist impulse by undermining some of the justifications for the Second World War. I’m trying to do it indirectly. But it’s also an escape. I mean, it’s so hard to talk about the present in a fresh way. That’s the hard part. The names. The names are so familiar. And I don’t want to hear the name “Obama.” I don’t want to hear the name “Assad.” I’m tired of the names. And yet obviously those are the names you have to use. And so, you know, it feels like you need to figure out another way.

(Loops for this program provided by ShortBusMusic, ferryterry, danke, and Progressbeats5.)

The Bat Segundo Show #520: Nicholson Baker (Download MP3)

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Did the New Yorker Make Nicholson Baker Elitist?

Last year, the New York Review of Books had the bright idea of commissioning Nicholson Baker to write an exuberant essay about Wikipedia. Beginning with the simple sentence, “Wikipedia is just an incredible thing,” Baker’s piece went on to chart his participation and subsequent obsession with the well-known website. Baker expressed his genuine horror at cavalierly deleted articles and depicted the many communal surprises he found along the way. It was a journey of self-discovery that permitted many who had used Wikipedia to rediscover the collective pixie dust selflessly sprinkled in the pursuit of knowledge. The essay was widely cited and linked. Here was the man who had once tapped his life savings to preserve newspapers now mining unexpected nuggets from a rich digital deposit. And Baker, under the moniker “Wageless,” continued with his Wikipedia contributions for some months after the article had been published.

Fast forward to today, with The New Yorker — a publication that not a single writer can afford to say no to — commissioning Nicholson Baker to write about the Kindle. But where The New York Review of Books managed to subvert expectations, the New Yorker has applied a marketing team’s craven predictability, with Baker corrupting his voice in the process. Baker’s essay is laden with cheap shots and clumsy generalizations. He’s not interested in seeing the bigger picture, even as he attempts some slapdash journalism when talking with Russ Wilcox on the phone. I’ll defer to Teleread’s Robert Nagle for Baker’s gross technological oversights. The more troubling betrayal here — one I hope that is merely temporary — is that the man who once unapologetically expressed his passion about John Updike, Wikipedia, and the use of “lumber” is nowhere to be found in this piece. He has been replaced by a brazen elitist who — in this essay at least — is closer to Lee Siegel in temperament than the man who once wrote gently and eloquently about card catalogs, or the writer who has devoted his career asking us to find the magic within the quotidian. The man who has subtly beseeched us to commiserate with the lonely and misunderstood people toiling in offices and talking on phone sex lines has momentarily transformed into a cavalier ruffian who scoffs at regular people for having the temerity to express their enthusiasm on Amazon and who likewise suggests that all blogs are “earnest and dispensable.” (That last comment echos a regrettable stance that can also be found within an inexplicably meanspirited passage from Baker’s forthcoming novel, The Anthologist: “You have to hand it to those podcasters. They keep on going week after week, even though nobody’s listening to them. And then eventually they puff up and die.”)

For a writer who has been so careful with his sentences, it’s astonishing to see Baker capitulate like this.

I’d be willing to accept Baker’s assaults on Jeff Bezos and the authors who appeared in the Kindle promotional video if Baker wasn’t so fixated on kicking down the average Joe like this. If Baker is going to go after Michael Lewis, Toni Morrison, and Neil Gaiman, then you’d think that he’d cop to the fact that he’s betrayed his own endearing populism for the New Yorker‘s lucrative word rate and prestige. (It should be observed that this is Baker’s first appearance in the New Yorker in nine years.)

The essay’s apologists will probably point to Baker’s defense of the iPod Touch (via Eucalyptus, ScrollMotion, and Stanza) later in the essay as a pro-technology concession. But aside from Baker’s inherently subjective position (indeed, one that doesn’t seem to consider other viewpoints), there’s Baker’s more troubling elision of class. How many unemployed types can afford either a Kindle 2 or an iPod Touch (costing $70 less than the Kindle 2) right now? Oh yeah. Baker hasn’t bothered with that. I guess one of the deals you make when you now sign on to write for the New Yorker is to act as if any thinking or feeling individual making under $30,000 a year doesn’t exist. Or that anybody who puts long hours into a blog or a podcast, or who uses a Kindle to read, can’t possibly be of societal value.

That’s a far cry from the man who once celebrated the “strangers who disagreed about all kinds of things but who were drawn to a shared, not-for-profit purpose” and who marveled at the capacity for people to build grand things with merely a keyboard and a desire to help. I hope that the old Baker comes back. But this new guy who can’t be bothered to laugh at a wasp passage because it appears on a screen? He sounds like a guy at a house party who can’t laugh at the Seth Rogen movie because it’s not playing in a movie theater.

[UPDATE: I will let this article stand unmodified and uncorrected as a reflection of how I felt at the time. But after some thought, I believe that I jumped to several needless conclusions, some of which have been cleared up by Nicholson Baker himself in the comments. (This update, incidentally, is not motivated by Baker’s appearance. I should point out that I was all set to respond to several comments before he arrived. But propinquity being what it is, the timing has worked out accordingly.) The upshot is this: I suspect that the rather grumpy tone of this article came about because I wrote it just after coming off a particularly terrible six-hour bus ride spearheaded by an unpleasant authoritarian driver who was screaming at random passengers and who did not know how to drive. My girlfriend and I, both in the early leg of this rather hellish journey, had acquired the article through email and read it on a cell phone. Perhaps these reading conditions prove Nick Baker’s point that the medium and the circumstances in which one reads can indeed factor into how one perceives the article, I detected several sentences as troublesome, interpreting them in an emotional way. I presented my findings in rather persuasive terms to my girlfriend, who was somehow persuaded. (I have a regrettable tendency to be able to persuade people of things even when I am wrong.) And the writing of this post occurred not long after we finally decamped from the raving lunatic driving the bus. I still believe that Baker should have used his writing talent for more enthusiastic purposes, but it was wrong of me to suggest some Svengali-like collusion between Baker and Remnick.]

Top Ten Books of 2008

As this grim year draws to a close, the time has come to celebrate the best in books while the publishing industry celebrates the apocalypse. To read my thoughts on this year’s essays, you can head on over to The Millions, where my entry in A Year in Reading has just been posted. I’ll also be popping up later at Ready Steady Book, The Chicago Sun-Times, and The Barnes & Noble Review for their respective celebrations.

What follows is an alphabetical list of the books that, in my view, mattered the most in 2008. You’ll note that Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is not on this list. Why is that? Yes, I took the book with me during my Thanksgiving vacation. But I made a deliberate decision to not read it until next year. I assure you that this was not some fashionably contrarian decision. The 25 pages I’ve read have indeed been quite interesting, and I remain confident that the remaining 875 pages will prove to be more gripping than the world’s most dependable dentures. I’m certain I’ll become one of those wild-eyed acolytes naming my firstborn son “Roberto” in honor of the great dead author who may or may not have been a heroin junkie. But I’m very much of the belief that good reading involves looking between the cracks and not always reading the obvious titles. So I have decided to put off 2666 until next year, where I can read this important novel without getting lost in the hype, thereby recusing myself from any possible ethical qualms. Besides, the book needs no love from me. It continues to be heralded as the Second Coming. And I’m waiting for the FSG publicists to work their magic and have Bolaño return unexpectedly from the grave.

You will certainly not see the sleazy favoritism practiced by Sam Tanenhaus (I have tried to spread the love across multiple publishers), nor the gutless and tone-deaf choices on Jonathan Yardley’s list. The latter list surely presents a strong case for Yardley’s retirement. (In fact, you won’t find see any of their respective selections on my list.) But as a caveat, I must observe that I am friendly with a few writers on this list. This friendliness, however, has no bearing on my decision-making process. I am likewise friendly with a number of writers whose work I do not care for, but who I have always encouraged to write better. (And, no, I will not name those names. It’s hard enough to stay writing when the publishing industry remains locked in a crazed freefall.)

Selecting the best books of the year involves remembering the titles that have slipped from our memory. And I have tried to pick books that have done just that. The intriguing thoughts contained within Samantha Power’s fascinating biography, Chasing the Flame, for example, were occluded by the Hillary Clinton contretemps picked up on the gossip circuit, for which we have The Scotsman to blame. While Power’s book didn’t quite make the top ten cut, it is noted, along with a few other forgotten books, in the Honorable Mention section near the end. I must also point out that Andre Dubus III’s The Garden of Last Days, despite being around 550 pages, was one of those rare novels that I simply could not put down.

It occurs to me that this is a needlessly longass introduction for a top ten list. Well, no matter. I shall try to keep my thoughts on the ten titles confined to a paragraph each.

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: This was a much maligned book from a quirky talent who has had a long history of being misunderstood by the critics. Nicholson Baker never claimed to be a historian, but he did dig dutifully through newspapers, sufficiently demonstrating how some vital stories get lost in the jingoistic funhouse. Human Smoke dared to present an alternative series of events that, wherever one stands politically, made a very strong case that the events leading up to World War II (much less any history) need to be reconsidered through a different prism. Even if one disagrees with the premise that pacifism could have ended the war, there nevertheless remains a fascinating dilemma for the reader. Could it be that the established history we commonly accept isn’t nearly so comprehensive? What information are we throwing away? And what responsibility do we have in widening the floodgates decades down the line to account for our missteps in the present? (For more on this book, see the Human Smoke roundtable discussion that was conducted on these pages: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five. See also Bat Segundo interview.)

Sarah Hall, Daughters of the North: Recently, Gavin Grant helpfully reminded me that, as good as Daughters of the North is, there were plentiful feminist titles from the 1970s that went much further in their political ambition and sausage-slicing ideology. But Daughters of the North (known as The Carhullan Army in the UK) not only represents a natural evolution for Hall’s great writing talent, but it’s one of the few dytstopic novels of 2008 that, like Atwood’s bleak ball-busting pair (Oryx & Crake; The Handmaid’s Tale), I don’t believe will end up as a time capsule. (For more about this book, see my essay on Sarah Hall’s books for the Barnes & Noble Review. See also Bat Segundo interview.)

David Heatley, My Brain is Hanging Upside Down: I have been asked to contribute my thoughts for the Barnes and Noble Review‘s forthcoming best of books list. Since I am a man of honor when it comes to my professional duties, I feel that the right thing to do is to remain silent and mysterious . But I will fill in this blank and update this post when the link goes up. Needless to say, the book in question does fall alphabetically between “Hall” and “Hunt.” And I’m pretty sure that you can figure it out. (UPDATE: The list is now up. And you can also listen to the Segundo interview here.)

Samantha Hunt, The Invention of Everything Else: Like the work of Scarlett Thomas and Richard Powers, Samantha Hunt’s second novel is unapologetically concerned with communicating a sense of informative wonder to the reader. The book concerns Nikola Tesla’s last days in 1943, and a young chambermaid’s to understand him while her father tries to build a time machine to contact his dead wife. This unusual story, which also features several enjoyable glimpses of excitable people indulging in questionable pursuits (including an astutely realized old-time radio show), asks us to consider how much faith we should place in the crackpots of our world. Are great minds any crazier than the rapacious money men who exploit them? Would our nation be thriving right now if we dared to listen to those who are regularly discounted? (See also Bat Segundo interview.)

Nam Le, The Boat: I’ve long been unnerved by the continued lionization of writers who desperately cling to their MFA toolboxes like organization men who fancy themselves longshoremen because they have seen the sea. These types often mistrust their innate voices and fear their idiosyncrasies, and we are all the lesser for it. But early in the year, this book arrived in my mailbox out of the blue. I knew very little about it, but I began reading and found myself captivated by a rare talent who thankfully can’t be pigeonholed. Nam Le writes in multiple tones and multiple locations. This astonishing debut short story collection features heartbreaking portraits of transition (“Halflead Bay”), some playful postmodernism (the opening story features a character named Nam Le), and what I interpreted (I seem to have been the only one) as a muted and juicy satire of the New York artistic life (“Meeting Elise”). (See also Bat Segundo interview.)

Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay: The celebrated poet Sarah Manguso suffers from a rare neurological disease called CIDP. As we learn in this short but stirring memoir, the disease is so rare that many doctors don’t quite know how to treat it. Manguso tackles both the literal and metaphorical ramifications of her personal dilemma, employing both high and low language, describing how she moved in and out of hospitals, and how dealing with this disease directly affected Manguso’s life. She learns, and we learn, that living is a scenario in which we must pay attention, and that paying attention, often in ways we aren’t entirely aware of, sometimes has unexpectedly moving results for ourselves and the people around us. (See also Bat Segundo interview.)

Stewart O’Nan, Songs for the Missing: The story goes that, over the years, Stewart O’Nan has made continued stabs at finishing this book, with the results often spilling over into other titles (such as last year’s excellent Last Night at the Lobster). But now that he’s finally completed it, O’Nan has accomplished something rather amazing here. This novel is ostensibly a mystery, in which an eighteen-year-old girl disappears and efforts are made by the family and a small Ohio town to find her. While this would seem to be a fairly typical storyline, you wouldn’t know this upon reading it. This book is one of the most astute presentations of human behavior and its unintended consequences that I’ve read this year — very much influenced by Richard Yates’s realism and rivaling Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever for a novel of this type. And that’s not an easy thing to do. I’ve found myself passing along this title to a number of writers who simply must study the way in which O’Nan embeds quiet details within this novel, and now I feel ethically obliged to pass along this title to you. (See also the Bat Segundo interview with O’Nan for his last book, Last Night at the Lobster.)

Ed Park, Personal Days: Long-time readers of this site will know that Good Man Park and I have carried out a strange interplay in the blogosphere. But I truly didn’t expect the Other Ed (or am I the Other Ed?) to knock this one out of the park. This office novel atones for Joshua Ferris’s overrated novel, Then We Came to the End, by offering crazy literary experiments (such as one section composed of a relentless pages-long sentence “written” by a worker who lacks a period on his keyboard), and permitting Good Man Park to flex his giddiness in fictive form. My only quibble with this novel is that Park may be self-censoring himself a tad about the horrors of office life, but it’s a small point that will hopefully be rectified in future novels. (See also Bat Segundo interview.)

Ross Raisin, God’s Own Country: Raisin’s debut novel wasn’t nearly as well received on this side of the Atlantic as it should have been. But its sheer stylistic invention alone deserves high notice. Here is a writer who is not only willing to explore uncomfortable truths, but who has managed to use language in a way that permits us to empathize with a monster. The vernacular here doesn’t just form a parochial barrier. It may very well be one of the fundamental aspects that prevents us from helping the most troubled members of society. (See also Bat Segundo interview and my supplemental lexicon to many of the terms used in the novel.)

Leslie What, Crazy Love: This quirky short story collection has been almost completely overlooked by readers who look at the fantasy genre with the same frightened isolationism readily observed in George W. Bush’s move to a neighborhood terrified of non-Caucasian residents. That’s a great shame, because there are invaluable lessons here on how to take a wild idea and make it concise and enthralling. The collection contains unsettling allegories and gleefully imaginative premises. There isn’t a single story in here that doesn’t take some kind of narrative gamble. And while the dice-rolling doesn’t always pay off, it certainly remains hot in your hands. (See also my Washington Post roundup.)

Honorable Mention: Andre Dubus III’s The Garden of Last Days (Segundo), Elizabeth Crane’s You Must Be This Happy to Enter (Segundo), Jenny Davidson’s The Explosionist (Segundo) Jeffrey Ford’s The Shadow Year (Segundo), David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague (Segundo), Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World (B&N Review), Samantha Power’s Chasing the Flame, Mark Sarvas’s Harry, Revised (Segundo), Brian Francis Slattery’s Liberation (Segundo for Spaceman Blues), and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (Segundo).

Responding to Tanenhaus: August 13

Sam: Very tepid on your blog. Not hot at all. Am told the men caught another snake nuzzling into Keller’s neck and that the snake responded to your name. Who knew that serpents could colloquize? In any event, a missed opportunity with your latest post. To suggest that only one party can be right in this case is to miss the very particular points that Messrs. Wood and Baker were making. Wood responded to Updike’s passage with an aesthetic eye. Baker rejoined with a clear passion for language. Cannot both be right? To suggest that there is only one opinion on a passage is to have a very limited and incurious mind indeed. Those of us who actually love literature may love a sentence for its feeling while simultaneously loathing it for its bombast. Have adopted this gimmicky Orwell-inspired approach to blogging that I find quite fun, but one commenter lodged his displeasure. Is he right? I would not deign to suggest that I have a superior opinion of my own writing because I happen to have written it. But some may judge it good, others bad. But nobody is “right.” Nobody has the ultimate answer. Did you not learn from Freud, Sammy Baby, that when one presents a definitive codex of human behavior, it will be easily usurped and outmoded in half a century? And have you not learned in your years as editor of The New York Times Book Review that literary criticism or even the casual appreciation of literature is not a matter of being “right,” but of presenting a thread to be picked up by another resourceful stitcher.

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, 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.

Human Smoke — Part Five

(This concludes our roundtable discussion of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. For previous installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

(Many thanks to Julia Prosser at Simon & Schuster, who was kind enough to go along with this crazy idea; Nicholson Baker, for taking the time out of his busy schedule to reply to these many thoughts; and, of course, to all the participants who offered provocative and interesting insights into the book. If you’d like to discuss the book further, feel free to hash it out in the comments. And for those craving more information, there will also be a future installment of The Bat Segundo Show featuring Mr. Baker.)

Edward Champion writes:

hsmoke5.jpgThere have been so many interesting topics raised here that I feel a bit guilty for throwing a few more talking points into the mix. Nevertheless, since we’re bringing this conversation to a close, I’m curious what you folks have to say about how Baker challenges our assumptions that World War II was the “good war” and thus the “good victory.”

To my mind, this issue has been germinating in Baker’s head for some time. Consider this excerpt from Baker’s last novel, Checkpoint (from pp. 61-62 in my paperback edition):

JAY: I’m on a path, man.

BEN: Well, veer off it.

JAY: There will be no veering. We’ve lost every war we’ve fought. Winning is losing. We lost the Second World War.

BEN: I think it’s widely agreed that we won World War II.

JAY: Well, we didn’t. It was the beginning of the end.

BEN: In what way?

JAY: We bombed all those places — we bombed Japan, right down to the islands, cities turned into grave sites. The crime of it began to work on us afterward, it began chewing on our spleens and rotting us out inside.

BEN: Ugh.

JAY: The guilt of it squeezed us and it twisted us and made us need to keep more and more things secret that shouldn’t have been kept secret. We tried to pretend that we were good midwestern folks, eating our church suppers — that we’d done the right thing over there. But it was so completely, shittingly false.

BEN: Yes, in a sense, but —

JAY: And so we lost that war. We didn’t win it. We were corrupted by it, and we became more and more warlike and secretive, and we spent all our money building weaponry and subverting little governments, poking here and there and propping up loathsome people, United Fruit. And the gangrene spread through the whole loaf of cheese.

BEN: Oh, please.

JAY: And Japan couldn’t do that. Their best people spent their days and nights thinking about how to make beautiful things, tools, machines that just felt good to hold. Which they did with such artistry. They couldn’t make fighter planes, we didn’t let them. And so they won the war. We lost.

Colleen raised some very valid points, which were followed up by others, about Baker taking certain liberties with military history. But I think that ultimately this book asks us, much as the second generation Holocaust historians have done, to seriously reconsider the notion of victory, as described above by Jay, the would-be assassin of President Bush. (And I also keep thinking of Clint Eastwood’s pair of films released a few years ago, which likewise presented war as a scenario in which there were no clear winners or losers.) The fact that Jay is absolutist, even in his insistence that America has lost every war, is just as egregious as claiming that, outside of Vietnam, America has won every war. War is far too complicated a beast for anyone to draw an absolutist viewpoint. And what’s more, Baker is insinuating — in both Checkpoint and Human Smoke — that this very absolutism leads quite naturally to the insanity of violence. Churchill, Roosevelt, and Hitler come off in Human Smoke as inherently absolutist and, as the closing moments of 1941 usher in further atrocities, we see that their stances become more all-or-nothing. (Likewise, this is the case with Lindbergh, whose anti-Semitism becomes more pronounced as he continues his efforts with America First, which we are reminded, on p. 348, are one of “two kinds of antiwar groups left — one on the left, and one on the right. One was made up of genuine pacifists — people from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Keep America out of War Congress, the Quakers, the peace ministers and rabbits, John Haynes Holmes and the Gandhians, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. And one was made up of isolationists who, like Lindbergh and his crowds of America Firsters, liked big armies and fleets of warplanes, and who held — some of them — quasi-paranoid theories about Judeo-Bolshevik influence. They wanted the United States to lay off Germany because Germany was the bulwark that held back Stalin.”)

So with war, we see that not only is the very scope of freedom of expression squandered, whether this involves standing firmly against the war or going to jail for “a year and a day” for refusing to join the draft, but that, in hindering free speech, the ideologies themselves begin to lose their gradients. Dissent and disagreement is very much the bedrock on which civilization rests upon. The League of American Writers is initially pacifist, only to become more militant and thus more in line with the expected national ideology. The protests against Lord Hallifax become more extreme, with the two womens’ groups (on p. 425) that hold up over-the-top signs like REMEMBER THE BURNING OF THE CAPITOL IN THE WAR OF 1812 and proceed to throw an egg and tomato at him. Opportunities for peace are destroyed by fire and bombings, such as Quentin Reynolds’s observations, on p. 323, that “[a]ll that day I sensed a new and intensified hatred of Germany in the people of London.”

I’ll leave the question of cyclical contemporary parallels to others for the time being (to my mind, the harsh assaults against Jeannette Rankin, who was the sole Congressional Representative to vote against going to war, eerily recalled the similar outcry towards Barbara Lee’s stand in the days after September 11th), but I’m curious what your thoughts might be in relation to one remarkable moment on p. 373, in which Cardinal Clemens von Galen manages to persuade Hitler to suspend a program that had the Nazis killing off patients from mental asylums that had been viewed as ill and incurable. I was stunned by this moment. Because not only did this play with the commonplace perception of Hitler as an evil monster, but it brought to mind that, even within a totalitarian society, it is possible to invoke gradients through reason. So if this is naive thinking on Baker’s thought, von Galen, without a doubt, succeeded in preventing atrocities on a small scale. It was possible to do something. Why then were so many people content not to make the sacrifice? Is it entirely fair to consider Nazism an endgame scenario (as we see in the fates of Stefan Zweig and his wife)? Or is there some slim glimmer of possibility within the deadliest of human systems?

There are two additional points that we haven’t discussed yet: (1) the lend-lease agreement, which I think is quite important, and (2) the way that Baker juxtaposes the paucity of food given to those in Germany with the manner in which Churchill gorges on half a bottle of champagne and copious feasts on a near daily basis (and, again, the egg and tomato thrown at Hallifax suggests an almost absurdist failure on the protesters’ parts to understand that an organic projectile of prodigious supply is indeed a commodity in Europe). To deal with the first point, I was struck by the way in which the verb “lend” is twisted so that Roosevelt can provide military aid to Britain by subterfuge. Is “lending” then, in this sense, the problem? The willful capitulation of “lending a hand” in favor of a more bureaucratic appropriation? Is Baker suggesting here that, had food, supplies, and even the fuel that is shipped by sea been more fairly allocated, that none of the conflict and violence that followed would have happened? And is this really a fair and valid position?

I’m wondering if you folks have, like me, viewed your perception of Human Smoke as “veering off a path,” as reflected in the above excerpt from Checkpoint. Are humans hopelessly locked into natural cycles? And is it reasonable to assume that by considering the forgotten, the misunderstood, and indeed those who are damned for their unpopular positions — specifically, these ideological gradients — that we might reasonably prevent mass atrocities on a global scale? Naivete on Baker’s part or something to seriously consider?

Eric Rosenfield writes:

I just want to make two things clear: I agree with Colleen on most points, and I want to emphasize again that, for me at least, if Baker’s point was to convince us that the pacifists were right, he utterly failed. Let’s imagine, for a moment the alternate history Baker envisions: Churchill never comes to power in Britain. Hitler marches into Poland and conquers it, and England does not declare war despite it’s mutual defense treaty. Let’s even buy that this leads Hitler to never invade France or Russia, despite his constant talk of a “Third Reich” to rival the former German Empire and the Holy Roman Empire. He starts sending all the Jews in the Reich to Madagascar. Except the Jews, who have already had all their assets liquidated, can’t be allowed to create a powerful state there so they are carefully controlled, and Madagascar becomes something like a Jewish Indian reservation ala the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in Russia. Jews start dropping like flies from malaria and other diseases they have no defenses against, while the delighted Germans refuse them proper medical treatment or insect nets and watch the Jewish population dwindle. Perhaps there are even some rebellions and a massacre or ten.

Meanwhile, Hitler, Mussolini and Franco consolidate their power in Europe and create an oppressive, Fascist mainland that lasts for generations. Japan conquers China and completes their oppression and exploitation of the Chinese and Koreans. With these powers now entrenched the idea of toppling them through military or other means becomes less and less possible.

I still think Hitler would have moved on to France and then turned his attention and that of his allies to Russia to bring down the hated Communists, and once somebody finally developed nuclear weapons we would have had something of a Fascist-Communist Cold War, or perhaps simply Armageddon.

Either way, I don’t think that’s the world I’d want to live in. Yes, Churchill was a vicious bastard who approved of bombing and starving civilian populations. Yes many, many, people died in the course of the war. I still think it’s better than the alternative. Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo and co. had to be stopped.

Dan Green writes:

Sorry for entering the conversation so late. I’ve only just finished the book.

Many intelligent things have been said here both about Baker’s book and about WWII, so I’m not going to offer my own thoughts about all the points that have been made.

However, a few people have suggested that Human Smoke might also be about 9/11 and the Iraq War. It seems to me that it is mostly about 9/11 and the Iraq War. The negative portrayal of Churchill, for example, seems a direct response to the neocons’ veneration of him. Not only does Baker show him to be indifferent in the extreme to the consequences of his war-making–particularly the bombing of civilian areas prior to the German bombings of London–but also he shows us just why the neocons invoked his name so often–his insane belief that bombing civilian areas would make the population rise up against Hitler directly parallels their belief that tearing the hell out of Iraq would have a similar effect on the people of Iraq (which also happens to parallel their belief that immiserating the Palestinians will someday, somehow, cause them to rise up against their leaders and agree to Israel’s terms). The depiction of Churchill’s (and to some degree FDR’s) fondness for weapons of mass destruction seems a direct rebuke to the Bush administration’s insistence that WMDs just can’t be tolerated and their threatened use is a sign of “evil”. Etc.

Part of the early discussion involved whether Baker was being sufficiently “objective,” and much of the subsequent discussion has been about the degree to which Baker’s information and emphasis are correct. I have to agree with Brian that objectivity was probably the farthest thing from Baker’s mind while he was writing the book. It’s an alternative history of the lead-up to WWII (one day there will be similar book about the lead-up to the Iraq War), and while it’s important that his narrative be accurate–the people quoted actually said those things and the behavior described actually happened–it isn’t necessary that it be objective. Indeed, it wouldn’t be as good as it is (and I think it’s quite good) if it were. He wants his readers to remember his book the next time Churchill and Roosevelt are nominated for sainthood and the next time WWII is described unambiguously as the “good war.” To this extent, I think he will succeed admirably.

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

Hello all,

It’s been fantastic being involved in this discussion — thanks, everyone.

Just two things:

1. A couple of us feel that Human Smoke is either commenting on our current administration or perhaps is explicitly about our current administration. This is one of those questions where, even though Barthes has killed the author, it would be great to hear Baker’s own take on that question. To what extent is Baker encouraging us to think beyond the episode he describes? Another way to put it: If Baker wanted to write a book about the current administration, why didn’t
he, you know, just write a book about the current administration?

2. Ed asked this question earlier:

“Is it reasonable to assume that by considering the forgotten, the misunderstood, and indeed those who are damned for their unpopular positions — specifically, these ideological gradients — that we might reasonably prevent mass atrocities on a global scale? Naivete on Baker’s part or something to seriously consider?”

I would recommend to all of you an essay written by Richard Rorty called “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality,” which takes up this point in a really precise, passionate, and (to me) compelling way. He’s writing about human rights–and human rights law in particular–and the essay overflows with ideas, one after the other. But the jist of his argument (and Richard, RIP, please forgive me for this brutal summary) is that appeals to human rights grounded in rational thought don’t really work, and therefore, the current legal and philosophical strategy of human rights has become outmoded, at least as far as preventing more violence. As Rorty writes, “it is of no use whatever to say, with Kant: Notice that what you have in common, your humanity, is more important that these trivial differences [in ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, what have you]. For the people we are trying to convince will rejoin that they notice nothing of the sort.”

Instead, Rorty argues, what changes minds are stories, stories that hit us emotionally, where it hurts. At the end of the essay, Rorty poses the question: “Why should I care about a stranger, a person who is no kin to me, a person whose habits I find disgusting?” For Rorty, rationality has no good answer. There is no real universality to which a moral question can appeal; philosophers after Kant, and especially Nietzsche, have seen to that. “A better sort of answer,” Rorty writes, “is the sort of long, sad, sentimental story which begins, ‘Because
this is what it is like to be in her situation–to be far from home, among strangers,’ or ‘Because she might become your daughter-in-law,’ or ‘Because her mother would grieve for her.’ Such stories, repeated and varied over the centuries, have induced us, the rich, safe, powerful people, to tolerate, and even to cherish, powerless people… [The last two hundred years of moral progress] are most easily understood not as a period of deepening understanding of the nature of rationality or morality, but rather as one in which there occurred an astonishingly rapid progress of sentiments, in which it has become much easier for us to be moved to action by sad and sentimental stories.”

This essay has kicked up a lot of dust since it was written, with people arguing for and against it. For my part, I don’t know if he’s right, but I hope he is.

Matt Cheney writes:

I’m still frantically reading the book, and am doing so while also teaching All Quiet on the Western Front to 10th graders, which is interesting to have going on in the background of my brain — but I wanted first to note that the Rorty article Brian cites is available online in the third issue of the Belgrade Circle Journal: here (the site uses frames; the direct link is here).

Also, an idea that popped into my head while reading Dan’s response and then Brian’s was: Brecht! Because this idea just occurred to me, I haven’t thought it through at all, but the connection was this — Brecht’s best and in many ways hardest-hitting plays are, I think, the ones that are set in his version of the past, not the ones that try to be contemporary. His attacks on the Nazis as Nazis were occasionally interesting, but they don’t possess half the power of plays like Galileo, Mother Courage, Good Person of Sezuan and Caucasian Chalk Circle, which all get some distance from particular contemporary events. This helps reduce the didacticism by creating resonance and a certain ambiguity — the audience has more freedom to think. (Which sometimes drove Brecht crazy, as when people started feeling sorry for Mother Courage…) (And yes, the dormant playwright in me wants desperately to turn this book into a script.)

I don’t think Baker is doing exactly that with Human Smoke, but I agree with pretty much everything Dan said about the book, and that agreement comes from feeling, as I read, that the book is a palimpsest — it wants to overlay ideas and images and words and facts onto the imagery already hardened in our brains, the stuff accumulated through years of watching TV, reading bits and pieces of articles and books, strolling through museums, etc. — so that when we encounter pictures of Churchill, for instance, or watch one of the ubiquitous WWII shows on the History Channel, we’ve got a few other particles of information rattling around in our memory, some sense that this is not all there is. Similarly, when John McCain starts comparing himself to ol’ Winnie, that comparison becomes more complex than McCain or his packagers might like it to be. Which brings us to the now of present atrocities — the things we are willing to look past, the things we don’t know, the things we assume. (Perhaps I shouldn’t even say “we”, because I expect we all look past, don’t know, and assume different things. Which, too, seems to be part of Baker’s point and technique.) All I know right now is I’m reading about the rejection of Jewish refugees, and though this is stuff I have known about for a long time, I’ve not *felt* it as vividly as I am feeling it now, here, reading Baker’s book. There are many possible reasons for that, but one of them is how he has structured and written the book. Like bursts of stinging light, inducing flashburn.

Frank Wilson writes:

I have read what other have to say about Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, but not before writing down my own impressions. I have no intention of doing any deep research into the history of World War II, but I have taken the trouble to make sure that my memory was sound regarding certain details. So here goes:

The material of the book is inherently interesting, though its presentation is not. Let us begin with the merely annoying — the repetition of phrases such as “It was March 14, 1935.” Why not just date the entries? Actually, the litany of portentous date announcements served to underscore (for me at least) the eventual monotony of merely cataloging incidents.

Which brings me to what I think is a more substantial objection: Baker’s book is a compendium of carefully cherry-picked anecdotal evidence. Having been born mere weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, I sort of grew up with World War II history, and I was increasingly struck, as I read Human Smoke, less by what was included — most of which I was actually familiar with — than with what was omitted. The Rape of Nanking by Japanese forces gets one entry, but the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 isn’t really gone into. Hitler’s annexation of Austria and invasion of Czechoslovakia are not mentioned. Nor is the African Campaign. You would never know from this book that Germany bombed Britain for 57 straight days, starting on Sept. 7, 1940, and that the bombing continued into May of the following year. You would, on the other hand, get the distinct impression that Allied bombing of German cities left a reluctant Hitler no other choice than to bomb the hell out of Britain.

Again, no mention is made of the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, nor of the agreement between the Soviets and the Germans to partition Poland, nor of the Soviet invasion of Poland. Also unmentioned is the Tripartite Pact, according to which the Axis powers agreed that if any was attacked the others would declare war on the attacker. So we do not learn that it was Germany that declared war on the U.S., not the other way around, after the U.S. declared war on Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

My point is that if you are going to let the evidence speak for itself, which I presume is the purpose of this 471-page sequence of index card-like entries, you have to present the evidence comprehensively, not so tendentiously as to render it mendacious.

Finally, there is the book’s underlying logical problem. Its premise is a counterfactual conditional proposition — if things had been done differently, the war could have been averted. Readers of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum may recall the character who points out that the problem with a counterfactual conditional proposition is that any conclusion derived from it is correct precisely because the premise is false. If I had not written the preceding sentence, I would have …? Written another? Or none at all? And if none at all, what would I have done instead? Who knows? But you can suggest anything.

The implication of the book is that a negotiated peace was possible — if only Churchill and Roosevelt had been more tractable. The good faith of Hitler and his associates seems to be taken for granted. While it is certainly true that more could have been done on behalf of the Jewish population, the probability that a foreign policy based on the principles of the American Friends Services Committee would have had the rosy outcome Baker imagines seems to me astronomically negative.

Colleen Mondor writes:

A couple of quick points to respond to your email, Ed:

First, I guess the characters in Checkpoint were willfully ignoring the Japanese Zero? (I realize it was a novel but still…) It was an amazing technological acheivement and far out performed US fighters – until one was found and taken apart by the US resulting in the design of the Corsair. (There have even been books written about that – “Koga’s Zero” is one.) That passage raises yet another way of viewing WWII – as the Japanese as peaceful artistic people who fell prey to the bloodier crueler Western influence.

Maybe our mutual human need to see good and bad prevents us from ever considering that everybody is wrong, in one way or another, when it comes to war, period.

I think WWII is a “good” war only in a pop culture sort of way; in other words any serious study of history shows that good and bad are not words that apply to war. You can certainly find moments of “good” in any war – episodes on all sides of people going above and beyond to save others – but in terms of war itself, it is not an argument that stands up to serious scholarship. For me I was a bit perplexed by Baker’s statement that the pacifists failed. I don’t agree. I think the fact that they did speak out to such extents in WWII – when it was very difficult to do so – is impressive. They could not stop WWII – there were too many countries involved for too many different reasons – only a very strong League of Nations could have stopped it and the League was designed to be weak so it was useless. But the pacifist movement did continue to grow. Look at everything that followed – the anti war movement in the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement, the marches for gay equality, etc. I think the pacifists in WWII created a map for others to follow and they deserve some credit for that. Trying to put the responsibility for the war proceeding on their backs makes as much sense as blaming it all on Churchill; and it’s just not true.

But again, Baker seems to have come to his own conclusions and presses them in the face of any evidence to the contrary.

Levi Asher writes:

First, since I think this conversation *must* be winding down eventually, I just want to say that I’ve enjoyed sharing ideas with all of you. I hope we will get a chance to do other roundtables, though I doubt we’ll often find books this incendiary (sorry) to discuss.

I wish I could respond to each person’s comments, but as Nicholson Baker might ask, “would that actually help anybody who needed help?” I don’t think it would.

I will respond to Frank’s objections to the book, though. I agree that the book presents (in its indirect, deadpan way) a very particular point of view, and is not a work of balanced history. In this sense, I do think it helps to consider Baker’s other experiments with form, like U and I, which also could not be easily categorized as any existing type of book. I think one of Baker’s goals in writing Human Smoke was to lead readers out to the edge of uncertainty about what they are reading. This is a very audacious book, and as such it is a very opinionated book. It is absolutely not an objective presentation of history, but Baker and Simon and Schuster do not seem to be trying to pretend it is.

So, if Human Smoke is just one guy’s (offensive) opinion, and if his opinions are no more persuasive than any others, then what the hell is this book good for? Well, I think Dan hits the nail on the head — I think the book is about Iraq and September 11, and about China and Darfur and Sri Lanka and Burma and Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s a warning about our current leaders among the “global powers”, none of whom seem a whit smarter than the thugs who killed millions and millions and millions and millions in the 1940’s. And our weapons are a whole lot bigger now, so the risks have only increased for peace-loving and life-loving people everywhere.

I think this book must be taken — in its own weird way, which is the only way any Nicholson Baker book can really be taken — as a hopeful book about the present and the future. Churchill and Roosevelt take a few punches, and they’ll be fine. But this book is about the leaders we’re suffering under now, and the ones coming in next.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

The diverse and divergent views expressed here are in themselves an example of how events gain their own momentum, spinning out of control beyond the expectations of their agents. I forget the exact quote but I believe any number of senior functionaries in the first Great War were sorrowfully puzzled as to how the hostilities ended up in armed conflict. Having experienced the unimaginable losses of the War to End all Wars, I have no doubt that Europeans of all stripes were not signing up for an encore. On the other hand the incantation, “Stabbed in the back” repeated in Germany for nearly a generation —well, we saw what happened

To quote Gil Scott Heron again, “… if everybody who said they were for peace worked for peace—we’d have peace. The trouble with peace is you can’t make any money from it.”

I am a little surprised at some of the vitriol aroused by Baker’s book which I should repeat again is not a history text. That he paid scant attention to this facet of the run up or that doesn’t really matter to me. And I would expect that readers of Human Smoke would have some knowledge of that history beyond the hagiography and mythologizing that stands for history pedagogy in American public schools. My most recent chat with Howard Zinn (soon to be published) contains this:

HZ:… I am waiting for somebody to write a book about the American Revolution questioning the justice of the American Revolution. In another words, asking, “Was this really a justified war? There are there holy wars in American History—the Revolutionary, the Civil War and World War II. People are willing to say that the Mexican War was imperialist—

RB: —now they are.

HZ: That’s right. And the Spanish American War and Viet Nam. But there are holy wars. Untouchable… I think it is worth questioning the justice of those wars. It’s a complicated moral issue. You might say Vietnam is easy. Iraq is easy. And the Mexican War is easy. And there are no wars which are more morally complicated [than the three holy wars]. But the fact that they re are morally complicated wars shouldn’t stop us from examining them. The American Revolution, in terms of casualties, was the bloodiest of wars. A lot of people don’t realize that. .. and the question is, as questions in all of these holy wars, could the same objective have been accomplished, independence from England, ending slavery, defeating Fascism—could those have been accomplished at less than the bloody toll that was taken and without corrupting the moral values of the victors in the war? And with better outcomes. Those are question worth asking. The American Revolution won independence from England at the expense of the Indians, at the expense of the native Americans. The English had set a line, by the Proclamation of 1763, you couldn’t go beyond it into Indian territory. They didn’t want trouble with the Indians. Independence from England takes place, the Proclamation of 1763 is wiped out. The settlers are free to move into Indian territory. Black People—most of them joined the British side rather than the American side. It was not a revolution for them. And the question I haven’t seen asked. Canada won its independence from England without a bloody war. Conceivable? It’s like asking the question about the nature for the Civil war. Slavery was abolished in all of the countries of Latin America by 1833. Without a bloody civil war. Now, of course, all those situations are different. And complicated. All that I am saying is that I think there are questions about history that so far have been untouched and untouchable and should. At least be opened up.

At the very least that’s what Baker has done here—question the Good War. I don’t think this is a brief for pacifism and I don’t think this is vilification campaign directed at Roosevelt and Churchill. And it certainly doesn’t sugar coat the Fascist menace (remember the origin of the title?) And, by the way, the Americans showed no hesitation in [fire]bombing Japanese cities [all of which comes after the purview of the book] led by the courageous Air Force (bomb ’em back to the Stone Age) officer Curtis Le May.

As a number of people have noted they are reading Baker’s opus as a lens on our current imbroglio and, uh, leadership. Which, I think, is one of the reasons we study history. May be we will learn something from Baker’s retrospective. Maybe.

Nicholson Baker responds:

nickbaker.jpgDear Roundtablers– What’s amazing to me is that all this explicative incandescence, this un-angry criticism, this enriching supplemental observation has gone on right at the very moment Human Smoke is published. This is better than any book review, and it’s more than any writer deserves.

My hope in writing the book was that I could add–or overlay (as Matt Cheney puts it)–some constructive complications to our working knowledge of a disaster. It was a period that felt, to the people who were suffering through it, like the end of civilization. Stefan Zweig’s hand trembled over the page when, at the end of 1941, he thought forward to 1942, 1943 and 1944. “The precious treasure of our civilization,” wrote John Haynes Holmes just after Pearl Harbor, “is about to be swept away.” All restraints, all laws, all gentleness, all compassion, all fair dealing, all honesty, disappeared, and for five years human beings did unimaginably awful things to each other.

So I had a very simple wish: I wanted to know what terrible things happened, and what good things happened, in what order, in the earliest phases of the war, before it supposedly got really bad. I pulled many events out of their larger national or international context and looked at them as separate human decisions–because that’s what they were to their participants. That led me to what Levi Asher helpfully calls a “pointillism of fact,” and to the avoidance of fancy theories. The evidence presented in the book (as Asher also observes) contradicts itself at every turn. The war is too big and too awful to allow for summation. The first step is to allow it to fill your mind with its cries of suffering. It has to make sense as something incomprehensible. As one event follows another, the reader and the writer must participate, weigh evidence, come up with a working interpretation, refine it, reject it, recall it again, and allow it to coexist with another contradictory interpretation. This provisional theorizing on the fly is the only way to arrive at a felt understanding of what happened.

On the other hand, I needed to have threads that the reader could follow. It had to seem organizedly chaotic, not numbingly miscellaneous. That’s why I’m thrilled to read Sarah Weinman’s judgment that out of the chaos I distilled a “clear signal.” And she’s certainly right, judging by some of the reviews, that the book is a 500-page Rorschach test.

I wrote the book in a simple style for several reasons. One is that it just came out that way. Another is that I’d been reading a lot of Churchill. He’s a brilliantly florid late-night talker–full of appositions and alliterations and rhetorical figures–but all this verbal dexterity coexists with a manic bloodthirstiness of deed. The same man who can write “You do your worst, and we will do our best,” can also joke, more than once, that the British weren’t yet bombing women and children: “Business before pleasure.” Churchill’s endlessly flowing eloquence temporarily turned off my adjectival spigots, such as they are.

I did not explicitly state them in the book, but of course I have many questions and some uncomfortable (tentative) conclusions. I can’t help wondering whether some sort of negotiated ceasefire late in 1939 or in mid-1940 might have reopened western escape routes for Jews (shut down by England and France as soon as war began) and even possibly allowed for the recrudescence of more moderate factions within Germany. (I keep remembering what pacifist Frederick Libby said in his congressional testimony: that the Jews stood “a better chance of winning their rights at the conference table with Great Britain and the United States as their champions than they do on the battlefield.”) Also, I can’t help suspecting that the stepped-up British bombing campaign of 1940 and 1941–“Keep the Germans out of bed, and keep the sirens blowing,” as Lord Trenchard put it–was a gift outright to Hitler’s government, in that it helped a rage-prone, mentally ill, murderous fanatic hold on to power through five years of hell. (That’s why I quoted Shlomo Aronson, who said that the bombing offensive united Germany behind Hitler and helped him “justify further Nazi atrocities against the remaining Jews.”)

Furthermore, I can’t avoid the feeling that Herbert Hoover and his aide Alexander Lipsett were right in their charge that Churchill’s tightening of the European food blockade made him a moral participant in the deaths by famine of thousands of Jews in Polish ghettoes.

I may well be naive–as Colleen Mondor observes–in fact, as a novelist, my naivete may be one of the few strengths I can bring to the doing of history. But I don’t think that the pacifists of England and the United States were naive. I think they fully understood what was at risk. War is, as anti-interventionist Milton Mayer wrote, the essence and apotheosis of fascism. We now know that those who wanted to oppose the Hitler regime with nightly fleets of four-engine bombers were on the wrong track–the result was a very long war in which six million Jews died and the ancient cities of Europe were laid waste. The military option was tried and it worked out mind-bogglingly badly. Is it so naive to think that in 1939 and 1940 negotiation and ceasefire–a physical but not a mental capitulation to
Hitler’s invading armies–might have saved an enormous number of lives?

I’m grateful to Ed Champion for setting up this roundtable, and to you all for giving my book such careful attention.


Frank Wilson responds:

Hope I can get these some what random thoughts in under the wire.

First, I thought it really gracious of Baker himself to contribute and I have to say that I agree with him that this is better than any book review. Like the book or not, agree with it or not, you cannot deny that the book prompts reflection.

Next, I want to address a phrase that you used, Ed – “the insanity of violence.” I’m not sure violence is necessarily insane, though you have to have direct experience of it to understand that. A person I was having a disagreement with and I once went crashing through a second-floor hallway banister onto the first floor below, just like in the Westerns. The actual, disturbing fact is that violence can be quite exhilarating. Thanks to the adrenaline rush, you don’t really feel any pain until the next day and you’re terrifically wide awake. In a way you feel more alive than at other times. This ought to be taken into into consideration when reading a book like Human Smoke, because one of the reasons WWII is thought have been a “good war” is that the well-nigh universal sense of urgency seemed to give everyone a heightened sense of purpose, something like the focusing of the mind that prospect of the hangman confers. Even as a small child I could sense this, and the years immediately following the war still have for me – as they do for others I know who were kids then – a brightness and optimism I have never noticed again.

As to whether a negotiated settlement would have had the salutary effect Baker thinks it might have, well, maybe if Hitler had been admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna everything would have turned out differently.

Thanks very much for extending to me the privilege of joining in on this discussion.

Human Smoke — Part Four

(This is the fourth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. For additional installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Five.)

Jackson West writes:

hsmoke4.jpgI dithered on whether to bring the book with me on my trip, and decided to leave it at home, so I don’t have the dog-eared page references handy. First with the quick thoughts, then with the rant:

— I hadn’t read anything by Baker before, at least knowingly (I’m sure I’ve read his bylined work in the New Yorker without noting it as such). While my first impression on reading was that it worked as a people’s history a la Howard Zinn, in retrospect, the focus on Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt (not to mention speakers of the public conscience like Ghandi and Isherwood) is of the “great men” school of historical analysis, not the “collective action” school.

— Baker has probably written the only 500+ page popular history that’s great for the bathroom library, which is a good thing. (You do have a bathroom library, don’t you?) That said, the tragedy of the war is dimmed somewhat when confronted with the tragedy that is MUNI, but it’s probably a great bus and subway read as well.

— I felt the note at the end should have been an introduction. I know that it would then color the rest of the book by declaring Baker’s point of view from the start, but I’m a fan of owning up to one’s biases. That said, Baker sums up the appeal of leftist politics for me in the final line — they were right.

— The research was exhaustive, if too reliant on exclusively Anglophonic sources, but the language and style I felt was a bit drab. One could argue that it’s clear, direct and unadorned, but I often wanted to be alone with the primary materials as Baker’s prose suffered when compared to the poetry of the quotes employed. Churchill’s bloated, purple rhetoric reads like Evelyn Waugh when compared to Baker’s workmanlike passages of paraphrase.

— I also wanted to make note on the quality of the printing, especially since we received real hardbacks and not proofs. I thought the font and typesetting were masterful, the heavy paper nicely textured, and the binding just felt solid compared to other contemporary hardbacks I’ve handled. The vellum dustcover was also a classy touch. It felt like a $30 book should.

While I’m trying not to get into the actual politics of the war in my analysis, since I’m much more comfortable reviewing a book than I am a war which happened before my time (“Hitler’s deft touch with an armored unit puts his peers in contemporary warfare to shame…”), I thought that the most glaring omission was a thorough treatment of the Spanish Civil War — and not for want of English-language material on the subject. Hitler and Stalin’s first battles were fought mainly on the plain through Fascist and Stalinist proxies, respectively (I prefer not to call Russia’s regime at the time Communist, since, well, it wasn’t).

Baker does right to point out that the central conflict between Churchill and Hitler was not one of ideology, but a clash of nationalists — because Churchill and Hitler were both, at their core, fascists. America’s isolationism at the time seems quaintly preferable in its humility than the imperialism it picked up and ran with after the war, but remember that neutrality was favored because it allowed industrialists to profit off of both sides in a conflict. Non-intervention in Spain made it clear that Roosevelt’s priorities were purely capitalistic, and he only comes off as some sort of welfare statist when seen in the light of the laissez-faire economic foundations the country was quick to return to, and quicker to stamp into the constitutions of the post-colonial third world.

Even Gandhi’s great achievements with non-violence were undermined by nationalism, since nationalism represents religious and racial tribalism potentiated by an economy of scale. Baker makes the case for pacifism, but even when using examples of red dissent being stamped out by the Allied war-empowered plutocrats, he shorts the fact that what demagogues are more concerned about than the economic policies of socialism and communism is the call for a global class solidarity. Ahimsa would have been effective as a deterrent if the conflict wasn’t between nations but between classes, because the hegemonic class can only convince soldiers to repress their working class brothers and sisters for so long.

Ultimately, Baker’s argument for pacifism founders on the question of great men versus collective action I brought up before. Giving private individuals the credit for turning the wheel of history is propagandizing an ideology that gives demagogues their power over a national tribe, and undermines class consciousness. I came across a quote from W.H. Auden in a recent Harper’s that I think sums it up: “Propaganda is the use of magic by those who no longer believe in it against those who still do.” In sculpting a narrative of venal supermen at war into bite-sized, easily digested anecdotes, he’s capitulating to a mythic worldview that has proven much more easily exploited by the violent than the peaceful.

Judith Zissman writes:

In Tuesday’s NYT piece, there is this quote:

“An early draft of ‘Human Smoke’ was a sort of quest narrative, he said — a book about a Nicholson Baker-like figure trying to learn the truth about World War II — until his wife talked him out of it.

“My own little chirpings turned out to be completely irrelevant, and once I took out the first-person pronoun, the book really started to move,” he said. “What people actually said was far more interesting than anything I could address, so I ended up being a juxtaposer, an arranger, an editor more than a writer. The satisfaction is winding up with something a little messier and less pat than what you thought.”

…which made my initial observation (and that many of yours, it seems) make more sense – that is, that the book appears to have this sort of subjectivity without a named subject. And though that’s somewhat challenging, I think it makes the book stronger in many ways.

What interests me about Human Smoke is less the interpretations of history and more the notions our two Eds (Park & Champion) raise about the structure and language, the fragmentation and pattern Baker uses to tell the story. The formal constraints of the short paragraph strip overt explanation and analysis from each contained-but-connected moment, and yet the almost poetic form enables a great deal of emotion (longing, regret, grief, anger) to bubble up within.

In that, it reminds me of nothing so much as Dos Passos’ depiction of the First World War in his USA Trilogy and Mr Wilson’s War, the overlapping bursts and bits, the large cast of characters, the repetition and the strong character voices.

I suspect I’ll have more to say as I finish the book, but wanted to pull back a bit from the discussions of history & military theory a bit, I suppose.

Matt Cheney responds:

Hi everyone,

Thanks to Ed for inviting me in — I just got the book and am less than 100 pages in, so anything of substance I have to say about it will have to wait for later. But it’s already causing me strange and contradictory reactions, all now heightened by the discussion here, and I wanted to record those before, once again, my feelings change.

First, this can’t help but be a personal book for me, oddly enough, and that was the reason that, when I saw Ed’s galley at a recent reading we both attended, I immediately got the publicist’s contact info. I grew up amidst the detritus of WWII — my father, who died in December, had collected artifacts from the war for most of his life. Documents, posters, film, guns, uniforms, barbed wire from Belsen, postcards sent from the camps to family members telling them everything is fine, blueprints for various theoretical weapons, etc. etc. He never seemed to understand, himself, why he collected all this material. He briefly tried to run a Holocaust museum, and nearly went bankrupt doing so, because it was in rural New Hampshire and he didn’t want to advertise it, since he felt that would be tantamount to advertising the Holocaust. Then he stopped charging people admittance, because he didn’t want to profit. Eventually, he was so far from profiting that he had to go back to doing what he’d done before, which was run a gun shop. So now, as I try to figure out how to liquidate his estate, I am stuck with figuring out what to do with all of these items, a lifetime’s collection of darkness (yes, the Holocaust Museum in D.C. is on my list of places to contact).

For me, WWII was something to escape, because it was my father’s obsession. He had theories and interpretations for everything, strong judgments about every book and movie about the era that he encountered, and by the time of my adolescence, when I was trying to figure out who I was and trying to distinguish myself as a different human being from my parents, I started wondering about my father’s interpretations of things, his love of Patton and great admiration for Churchill, for instance. I read Howard Zinn and changed my political viewpoint to one far to the left of my father’s perspective, and I studied as much as I could of the history and theory of pacifism. WWII remained the challenge for me, of course, as it is for anyone who wants to believe nonviolence can triumph — what do you do about fanatical military aggressors? I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now.

I’m grateful for the historical perspectives that have been offered on Human Smoke, because as I’ve been reading I’ve been wondering about all that has been left out, and my own knowledge is too spotty to create a systematic map of the missing landscapes. What fascinates and frustrates me about historical writing is that it can never be truly comprehensive, that there are always other ways of looking, other facts (perhaps this is why I tend to read more fiction than nonfiction; in fiction, this tendency thrills me, in nonfiction it tends to be at least a little bit frustrating) — the challenge, of course, is to determine what’s relevant and why (just because somebody else could tell a different story about my life this morning at 8:33 AM does not mean that it would be significantly and meaningfully different from my own … although it might…) The struggle I’m having with Baker is one I am enjoying — the struggle is to figure out what weight to place on what he has put in and what he has left out. For me, it’s like reading a translation, because I can’t help but reconfigure various sentences in my brain to imagine alternatives. Perhaps one of the book’s strengths lies in its insistence on the imagining of alternatives in a world where it seems the general view (at least in the U.S.) of the “meanings” of the era around WWII are solidifying into standard and fairly simplistic moral formulae. I like our discussion so far, because it seems to be suggesting that the complexity Baker offers (or tries to offer, depending on your view) is still not enough.

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

Well said, Judith and Matthew. I don’t want to prematurely close off the lively discussion we’re having about history, speculative history, and pacifism when I say this, but such a debate is endless–and that’s a wonderful thing–but it’s not a thread that I can imagine anyone being able to tie off neatly. By picking pacifism as his lens, Baker opens up a bunch of really tough questions about why World War II happened–and, to a certain extent, why any war happens–and what can be done to stop it. I can’t speak for anyone else here, but my own response to that logic is to a large extent grounded in my own response to absolute pacifism, which is very inviting to me as an abstract concept, but a really hard row to hoe in practice.

Judith and Matthew, meanwhile, have steered us back toward the question of why Baker chose to put the book together as he did, and what effect it has. We’ve talked a lot about its myth-destroying and complicating effects; Baker’s method has given us a lot to talk about.

At least from my perspective, one of the other things that the method allows Baker to do is to illustrate what some academics like to all war’s brutalizing effects. Early in the book, there are intermittent mentions of the fact that, at the war’s outset, both the British and German publics were opposed to war. Even when the bombs began to fall, many people remained opposed–there’s that heartbreaking anecdote about the plea for peace from the residents of the London neighborhood reduced to rubble. But as the bombings continue and more people are killed, more things broken, Baker gives you the sense that one by one, people snap–they just can’t take it any more–and rather than capitulating to the enemy, they start talking about bombing the enemy as they’ve been bombed, hitting back as they’ve been hit–or worse, wreaking ten times the damage that they’ve suffered. World War II is rife with instances about how brutality begets brutality and dehumanization multiplies, at the level of armies (John Dower’s War Without Mercy comes to mind) and individuals (Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, in which doctors at concentration camps perform ever more barbaric experiments on the inmates), and studies of other wars show the same thing. But too often, those observations are couched in academic language, or even if they’re not (the above two books are eminently readable), they’re just in the parts of the bookstore where most people, let’s be honest, simply do not go. I was grateful for Baker for illustrating this concept in a very compelling and accessible way, and for getting it into the part of the bookstore where people do go.

Okay, back to work.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

Having grazed around through the dense underbrush of the remarks so far, a few things stand out:

I can’t imagine criticizing Baker for not providing enough information, eg on the Treaty of Versailles. I can’t even reconstruct a valid argument for Baker’s obligation to have emphasized or not emphasized some feature, event, player, subplot. This is an instance when I think the truism/cliché, “It is what it is” works for me. Also, I take that to be complaint akin to criticizing an author for not writing a certain kind of book instead of dealing with the book that was written.

Someone asked about the opportunity for civil disobedience and demonstrations under the Nazis. A few years ago I was told—and there may well have been a book on this— that 10,000 German hausfrauen, wives of Jews, demonstrated in Berlin. An instance, that at the time, served to remind how much I didn’t know about living under the Nazis Human Smoke also serves as a reminder.

It’s a longer discussion— but let me suggest that there is an ongoing conflation of literary ideas with historiographic(al) ones. This seems to have something to do with some unresolved and farmisht notions of objectivity (pseudo objectivity) /subjectivity. I’m glad someone brought up Howard Zinn as I think he has a sensible view of this pseudo issue. Search engine Zinn and I am ceratin his explanation comes up fairly obviously on the Howard site.

The larger impression and inchoate feeling I have about Baker’s effort is that it reinforces my sense that the fulminating and ululating about the transformation of the world (for Americans) after the World Trade Center was demolished, comes from a shameful ignorance of that world. Gil Scott Heron intones in his masterful Money And The Military, “Peace is not the absence of war but the absence of the rumor of war.” Was the world at peace prior to Sept 1, 1939? Was the USA at peace prior to Dec. 7, 1941 and after the surrender of the Axis countries after Aug, 1945? And was the USA at peace prior to Sept 11 2001? I say no to all and believe that indifference to events beyond the shores of this nation allow for the kind of dysfunctional international relations we are burdened by now. One of the lessons (though by no means would I accuse Nick Baker of being didactic) is that there is steady drumbeat of activity being played out all of the world simultaneously, sequentially, in the 11th dimension and in the lunatic visions of various megalomaniacs in numerous world and third world capitols. We would do well to pay attention, even one in a while.

By the way I suggest that Human Smoke warrants at least one further reading—need I explain why?

Colleen Mondor writes:


In reference to your comment on the Treaty of Versailles – I never wrote nor intended with my words that Baker had to analyze or scrutinize the treaty in his book. Having said that however, in his book Baker more than once has selected pieces to highlight that suggest certain things – such as that the US drew Japan into the war (this is just a single example). If he juxtaposed that with certain info from the treaty that revealed how Japan was made powerful by that document while China was simultaneously weakened (I’m talking just another entry or two in the book) then it would go a long way towards showing that there were complex machinations at work here that dated back decades. Which I think is true for that aspect of the war in particular.

I don’t want to make this a discussion about military theory however. And I don’t want to suggest that I’m looking for a book other than the one Baker wrote. I feel the book he did write is absent of balance more than once however and if this was published as something other than strictly a nonfiction history of the causes of WWII then I would say “fine – no problem”. But that is how it is being published and so I see that absence of balance more critically then I would otherwise.

I did want to ask also what was thought of his choices overall of what he included and chose not to include…in other words, I wondered when I saw that inclusion about Eleanor Roosevelt making anti-semitic comments and if that was something relatively minor in her life, or a fundamental part of who she was. In his afterword he noted that he relied heavily on the NY Times so I was curious as to whether he went looking for certain comments or certain subjects or stuck with what was most prevalent. I have NO COMPLAINTS about his choices, I’m just curious as to whether anyone had thoughts on how he gathered them.

Levi Asher writes:

Hi again, all. I feel some regret that this conversation has taken on a strident tone, especially since in my enthusiasm I probably contributed to this. I know we are all hoping not just for a political discussion but also a literary one.

Unfortunately, my post today won’t help, because what I mainly have to share is my findings after re-reading many chapters of William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (the most generally trusted primary source on the European war in the English language, I think) covering 1938 and 1939, including Chamberlain’s appeasement at Munich to solve the Czechoslovakian crisis and the Allied decision to go to war after the invasion of Poland. The main thing that struck me, in rereading these chapters in context of Baker’s book, is how hard so many politicians, so many diplomats, so many military officers, so many writers, so many journalists, so many activists and citizens tried to help the nations avoid this war. The popular sentiment against returning to the horrors of total war was very strong in every part of Europe in 1938 and 1939, according to Shirer.

These chapters are filled with pained, agonizing appeals from every corner of Europe to avoid the disaster. As Baker says, many Nazi military officers were dead-set against the invasion of Poland because they saw (correctly) that Germany would be destroyed. Mussolini was against it, because he saw (correctly) that Italy would be destroyed. Chamberlain has been demolished as an “appeaser” by history, but his motives were certainly the right ones (though his judgment turned out to be tragically flawed). Stalin eagerly welcomed the war because he hoped to keep Russia out of the worst of it and watch all his enemies destroy each other — that is, the one world leader who did the most to enable Hitler in August 1939 did so because he incorrectly believed his nation would not be drawn in to the fight.

It’s also very clear from Shirer’s book that Hitler did not want war with France and England. He and the other top Nazi leaders saw correctly that Germany’s only chance was to pull off a diplomatic finesse (as they had done before) to keep England from unleashing its full strength against him. By the time the tanks rolled into Poland in September 1939, there was still a slim chance for a diplomatic settlement, and according to Shirer’s book the Nazis universally saw this slim chance as their best chance. According to this interpretation, Hitler lost World War II not on the battlefield but in the conference room, because it seems to have been widely recognized at the time, in Germany and elsewhere, that Germany was badly outmatched in a war against Great Britain.

Here’s a scene from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:

The day before, on October 11 [1939, just after Germany’s invasion of Poland], there had been a peace riot in Berlin. Early in the morning a broadcast on the Berlin radio wave length announced that the British government had fallen and that there would be an immediate armistice. There was great rejoicing in the capital as the rumor spread. Old women in the vegetable markets tossed their cabbages into the air, wrecked their stands in sheer joy and made for the nearest pub to toast the peace with schnapps.

There are so many ways to look at Baker’s book, and to argue for or against the political conclusions the book suggests. But, historical interpretations aside, I think it’s a very notable (and little known) fact how hard Europeans in every nation worked to change their dreadful fate as they slipped helplessly into war.

Human Smoke — Part Three

(This is the third of a five-part roundtable discussion on Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. For additional installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Four, Part Five.)

Colleen Mondor writes:

Levi – all of your points are fascinating and quite thought provoking. I didn’t mention this before but Hitler was very much a product of WWI as well – there is some thought that he wanted a heroic moment he did not have; perhaps that partly led to his desire for power.

hsmoke3.jpgIn regards to Perry and Japan – yes, I agree that the clash of West and East in Asia in the late 19th century had a huge impact on the rise of militarism in the Japanese government. The development of colonies in China affected Japanese concerns about Asian independence (for those of you wondering about the Vietnam War, it all starts with France moving into Vietnam during this period of rampant colonization.) But I don’t like to shed blame on America for Japan’s actions or Britain for Germany’s actions – I think in a lot of ways what we saw in WWII was an immense clash of titans…it is almost like the conflicting demands for power on the part of multiple countries around the world (what was Italy’s grab for Ethiopia except a desire to have a colony of its own?) forced an armed conflict. The only thing that could have stopped this (in my opinion) is a viable, reasonable treaty in 1919 and a strong and meaningful League of Nations. The world was not ready for that however, and we missed our chance.

It seemed to me that Baker wants to point the finger at someone or someplace – or reverse the typical finger pointing at Japan and Germany. Perhaps WWII is just still too close; we are still knee jerking to blame someone for a huge event that was the blame of everyone…(or a lot of people anyway).

I still resist the thought that a peace agreement with Hitler in 1939, 1940 or later would have been a viable option because I believe he (and his leadership) had too much invested in total victory…I point to the Russian invasion of how unreasonable Hitler could be. As to the Jewish question of what an earlier peace might have meant, I can’t help but think of Jo Walton’s marvelous alternate history novels, “Farthing” and “Ha’ Penny” which explore that very idea. What would life have been like without the Holocaust? We assume it would have been better but that is not necessarily true.

The first camps actually opened in 1933 (Dachau was one of them). They were not death camps as such but punishment or work camps and they were hell. Mauthausen opened after the invasion of Austria in 1938 – the slogan was “extermination by work.”

Sarah Weinman writes:

Colleen – you’ve definitely brought up some good points, but I there’s one you’re suggesting that I’ll have to disagree with. The impression I’m getting is that you posit that Human Smoke suggests peace with Hitler was a viable option. On the contrary, I think Baker makes the point – a very good one – that the warmongering, take-over-the-world attitude and brutal, pointless march towards war on the part of Hitler, Goebbels etc. was an even deeper, far more entrenched problem than Roosevelt and Churchill’s attitudes. We’re focused on the American and UK side because those are the sources Baker primarily pulls from. But those aren’t the *only* sources he references. Mary Berg’s story in the ghetto seemed a clear product of the Nazis, not a by-product of the Allied front, for example.

Perhaps if Baker had beefed up the early sections, concentrating more on the post WWI times and the sociocultural changes going on (another thing to think about: there’s hardly any mention of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover’s rise to power. What effect, if at all, did he have on the eventual American presence in the war? Probably not much, but I’m curious…) then the message that the roots of war on both sides stemmed so far back that pacifism as a viable movement had little chance to stop the steamroll would have been clearer.

Colleen Mondor writes:

This is where my confusion with Baker comes into play Sarah. Everytime I read a part that seemed included to make it clear that the war was going to happen regardless (like the one you mention) then something would be thrown out that seemed to hint at an alternative (like the comments suggesting if only Churchill would agree to peace all would be well or the same thing if only FDR would stop pushing the Japanese). So I circle back to that suggestion. That’s how I read it.

My complaint goes back to the choices made in putting the book together. I think it is an outstanding idea but I’m not sure that Baker had the focus (whatever he chose that focus to be) needed to pull it off.

Nick Antosca writes:

Hello everyone; I’ve met some of you in person and only know others by reputation, but it’s a pleasure to be involved in this conversation. I’m recovering from the near-delirium of bad cold and have just caught up on the discussion points so far.

I was particularly interested in Eric’s remarks about Churchill. I think we can all agree that Baker’s portrayal of Churchill is one of the most incendiary (so to speak!) elements of Human Smoke. It is clear that the man was willing to sacrifice human life in great quantities and it’s also clear that Baker has a visceral dislike for him (when he characterizes Churchill’s ideology with sardonic contempt, he can start to sound a little like Martin Amis: “Bombing was, to Churchill, a form of pedagogy–a way of enlightening city dwellers as to the hellishness of remote battlefields by killing them”). But I found Churchill also the most fascinating figure in the book, both in a historical context and, well, as a character. His motives were all wrong, he seems to have been congenitally deaf to human suffering, and his ideology was fed by notions of racial superiority–but in May 1940, his stubbornness and bellicosity were better bulwarks against Hitler than the relative levelheadedness of Chamberlain.

It’s one of the larger ironies of this story: Chamberlain seems to have been a reasonable, intelligent man who wanted peace, and Churchill something of a loudmouth war fetishist. But Churchill was the better man to stand up against Hitler–who was, as Levi said, “a frustrated politician, a failed leader, [and] a military flash in the pan,” but also an obsessive, irrational person with the resources of mass murder at his disposal. Diplomacy wouldn’t have worked. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that Churchill was intent on destroying his regime.

What I do think is plainly awful is the attitude expressed and displayed by both Churchill and Roosevelt toward civilian casualties. Is mass murder ever justified? (Is it morally defensible to kill 1,000 people if it will save the lives of 1,001?) Is there any difference at all between the bombing of civilian targets by the RAF and the bombing of civilian targets by the Luftwaffe. I don’t think so. Equally reprehensible is the indifference displayed toward refugees. (I was particularly struck by the small, ugly anecdote about Roosevelt’s joke to reporters regarding Hitler and “one of the few prominent Jews left in Germany” [417].) It’s not like any student of history wasn’t already aware of this, but still it’s a shameful episode to think about. What would have happened if America and Great Britain had actively welcomed those fleeing the Nazi regime? Would the Holocaust as we know have been prevented or radically diminished in scale?

And then there’s that persistent question that most of the preceding responses have in some way alluded to–was WWII a “good war”? What I took from Human Smoke was that it was half a good war. War with Hitler was necessary–although some indefensible tactics were used. War with Japan was not necessary–the attack on Pearl Harbor unquestionably required a military response, but the American escalation and provocation that preceded the attack were the actions of a nation that wanted war.

On another note, I wish the book had ended on Dec. 31, 1945 rather than 1941. I’d have been fascinated to read Baker’s account of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Levi Asher writes:

Sarah and Colleen, I agree that, to whatever extent Human Smoke has an actual point of view, it contradicts that point of view. I came to the conclusion that Baker (who loves to play with form, of course) was doing this intentionally, that he was constructing the book as a sort of “pointillism of facts” where the facts don’t have to necessarily
agree with each other or have any relation to each other.

So, for instance, the interpretation or “argument” I’ve been describing and engaging with is actually my own construction, though I think it’s a construction Baker laid out for readers to pick up. The only time Baker betrays a direct point of view is in the book’s very last sentence, when he says of various pacifists: “They failed, but they were right.”

I do think, though, that Baker’s point of view shows up here — I gather that he is a committed pacifist in the general tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. Which I think is about as good a stance as stances get, and this is probably why I like the book so much.

(Also, in response to Colleen, I also don’t want to slip into “blaming America”. That would miss the point. Nobody is saying Roosevelt and Churchill were worse than Hitler, by a longshot. But did they do as well as they could have done? It has to be asked.)

Okay, I better stop this rambling discourse …

Edward Champion writes:

There are many thoughtful points that Colleen brings up. So I’ll try to respond to a handful here.

Colleen complains about Human Smoke not possessing “an adequate discussion on the Treaty of Versailles.” In fact, the Treaty of Versailles is mentioned four places in the book. Baker’s most stirring citation is Hitler denouncing the Treaty of Versailles as “utterly intolerable” on p. 135. And if one wishes to dig up the standards here, Hitler’s antipathy to the Treaty of Versailles is also quite evident in William Shirer’s account. Thus, Hitler’s rise to power has very little to do with the Treaty’s specific conditions or the concomitant developments concerning its parties. The whole point here is that global ideology failed to consider and, in some cases, outright ignored pacificism. Regardless of the idealistic points set into stone by Woodrow Wilson and company (and we all know what happened with the League of Nations), Hitler was determined to posture in whatever manner possible to encourage an attack, painting England as the enemy and Germany as the victim. This is very much the “repetition” that Levi alludes to and something you will find in nearly any World War II historical volume. What Baker brings to the table here is how readily Hitler’s wartime bluster was eerily mirrored by Churchill. I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that, because Billy Mitchell’s 1924 prediction came before John Haynes Holmes’s antiwar play (presented in 1935), Baker is therefore wrong or does not know about Mitchell. But if we must split hairs, in 1924, the Nazi Party wasn’t around. Hitler wasn’t yet in a significant position of power. (Hell, the beer hall putsch had only just happened.) Baker’s point is that, despite Holmes’s play receiving considerable notice in both The Nation and The Times, most people chose to ignore it. This was not a matter of Mitchell being a historical soothsayer. It was a matter of arts and activism offering a reflective prism of what was happening during this particular time, and nobody paying attention (or perhaps enough attention) to a pivotal piece of culture that suggested what was happening across the pond. Not unlike Checkpoint, strangely enough.

I must also address Colleen’s “confusion” about the Madagascar section she cites on p. 204. It is abundantly clear that the latter Madagascar scenario involved Jews being transported to an island-based concentration camp, itself a whole-heartedly horrible scenario, and troubling given the unsuccessful negotiations with the French government in 1937 (see p. 67) to work something out for Polish Jews, which did not involve a concentration camp. I agree with Colleen that shipping Polish Jews from their homeland is an entirely terrible idea. But I think Baker’s references to Madagascar demonstrate that sweeping ideology causes a safer idea, however fey or insalubrious, to be taken to a deadly level. That had someone stopped this ideology from escalating into insanity and taken up this admittedly insane offer, a few Polish Jews might have been saved.
I suppose all this is why I see this book, to a large degree, as a very interesting preservationist polemic. We willfully ignore the ravings and rantings of the perceived wackos. But it may very well be that failing to listen to this sort involves something more pernicious.

More later.

Colleen Mondor writes:

Well I’ve been officially pounced on. A brief reply:

I wasn’t suggesting that Baker needed to know every little thing and I didn’t bring up Billy Mitchell thinking Baker should have known it. I brought it up the same way Sarah (and others) have brought up other names – there is a lot out there in other words, and it is always selective what you include or leave out. (I also used Mitchell only to agree with another email that the Americans had considered Japan a potential enemy decades before – I don’t recall suggesting at all that he needed to be in the book.)

As to the Treaty of Versailles, I didn’t mean that it wasn’t mentioned in the book but that it is big and there is a lot to it – a lot has little to do with Germany even. (It has much to do with Japan’s rise to power and China’s descent actually.) WWII came from that treaty – you write about the war then you need to write a lot about the treaty. I respectfully agree to disagree with you about Hitler’s rise to power being directly related to the condiitons set forth in the Treaty of Versailles. I think it was.

My confusion over Baker’s mention of Madagascar is not over what it was about, whether it would be successful or whether it was good or bad. I found the way that Baker would insert it occasionally into the text to be odd. Was he suggesting that the Jews would have been saved if Churchill agreed to peace after the invasion of Poland? And was he suggesting that this would be a real thing? I don’t know. If he only mentioned it once it would be just one more aspect of the history he wanted to share. By coming back to it several times he seems to want to make a point. Forgive me for not seeing it.

I’m done.

Robert Birnbaum writes:

I started to read the various opinions and profferings and found myself distracted by the cacophonous erudition on display—though I think it is neat that Gmail has assigned everyone’s name a different color.

So forgive me if I repeat or revisit some part of this polylogue but I am not reading the nearly 20 pages of commentary until I have fixed on some firm ideas of my own. Plus I am reading Jack O Connell’s The Resurrectionist and Alan Furst’s new opus — so many books, so little time. Thus my own meager contributions to this literary cosa nostra will be sporadic and fragmented

I am struck by my preference for Nick Baker’s essays and book Double Fold (and now (Human Smoke) — my dabbles into his fiction left me unsatisfied and—uh, let’s leave it at unsatisfied. This particular work, which caused me to recall Voltaire’s assessment of history (“the lies we agree upon”) and Eduardo Galaeno’s magnum opus Memory of Fire — a three volume fragmentary (that’s fragments of larger stories that can stand alone) history of the western hemisphere, drawn from all manner of sources, provokes from the outset by referring to the “end of civilization.” Civilization ended in late 1941 folks? Oh my.

This is not your father’s history or your grandfather’s. So some of the nitpicking I noted as I scanned the current accumulation conjures some unfortunate images (best left unsaid or I will certainly quickly assume the mantle of the rat in the cathedral. )Baker ‘s book ought not be faulted for not including this tidbit or failing to emphasize that event or person or document. What is an open and interesting issue for me is whether one could construct an alternate view of the same time frame with 500 or 600 other paragraphs.

Also, the dramatis personae in Human Smoke are sufficiently diverse to deflect any complaints that this is history as made and seen only by great men and women (and I commend Baker for going beyond Eleanor Roosevelt to represent activist women). Especially in his choice of non governmental voices— Gandhi, Isherwood, Klemperer, Mann, Einstein—and refraining from trotting out activist artists “tainted” by various Stalinist affiliations.

Isn’t it amusing to see how transparently fraudulent FDR was in any claims (in the 1940 re election campaign and after) to peaceful intentions— its not like George Bush invented misleading Americans. And for all of Churchill’s oratory and clever rhetoric and Bartlett’s filling quipping, his admiration for Hitler and Mussolini don’t put him in flattering light—not to mention his seeming indifference to human suffering

Is this a work of history? A literary pastiche? A hybrid codex of the pre WW II world? While I am not anathema to categorization and naming I think when we come across an stirringly original work assigning it a niche in our catalogue is the least of our tasks— assuming there is a hierarchy of interpretation.

One more thing (for now) how lacking in imagination the war -mongerers and generals were in the last global conflagration that they were not able to come up with neat phrases like “collateral damage” Part of the argument that Holocaust deniers throw down is that carpet bombing of Dresden and Hamburg and Tokyo were in every way as criminal and genocidal as anything the Nazis might have done. Try to convince any Americans (who haven’t read Slaughterhouse Five) of that. Actually, I’m curious were any Allied forces or leaders ever formally accuse of war crimes or atrocities (perhaps along the lines of the Soviet Katyn Forest slaughter)?

More TK.

Human Smoke — Part Two

(This is the second of a five-part roundtable discussion of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. For additional installments: Part One, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five.)

Colleen Mondor writes:

Hi all – I’ve read the first round of responses from Sarah, Levi and Brian and I’m not sure that I can completely speak to each of the points that everyone has brought up (we are already going off in many directions!) but I do have some thoughts on the book that connect to some of what others have written.

hsmoke2.jpgFirst, I came to Human Smoke with no pro- or anti- Baker pov. I enjoyed Double Fold and that was the last Baker book I read – so I can’t speak to whether or not this is a response to any of his books.

For me personally, I was excited to read the book because I studied and taught this period of history for several years. I had high hopes for the book but was very disappointed.

I don’t think you can jump into the causes of WWII without an adequate discussion on the Treaty of Versailles, something that Baker does not give much attention. It lead directly to Hitler’s rise to power and also contributed (to a lesser extent) to internal difficulties in China which Japan took full advantage of. On that front, Baker does provide a lot of discussion on the sale of arms to China and Japan by the US which is very interesting and important but he fails to explain the backstory of Japanese designs on China, the acquisition of former German colonies in China by Japan as part of the Treaty of Versailles and the impact of Japanese encroachment on China such as the Mukden Incident in 1931. Japan had serious military intentions on all of Asia and most certainly saw the west as a threat. As Brian mentioned, (I think) the US did consider Japan a potential threat far before 1941. In 1924 Billy Mitchell, (Asst Chief of the Army Air Corps at the time) predicted nearly down to the minute how and why he thought Japan would attack Pearl Harbor. He was loudly dismissed, largely because the racist attitude of the day could not see any Asian nation as a threat against the west and because Mitchell himself had a lot of enemies in the military. (He was very outspoken.) But it is not outside the realm of believability to suggest FDR knew what might happen as far as a Japanese attack against America someday. But no one – no one – has ever found the smoking gun proof that he knew it was going to happen for sure. I think we believed Japan was a threat, but did not know an attack was going to happen on December 7th. Baker seems to suggest that FDR goaded Japan into a war they would have avoided otherwise. That seems very hard for me to believe based on what Japan did in China and elsewhere in the years leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack. (I refer to the Japanese government here – I do believe that most of the Japanese people did not want war with the US; but they followed their leadership.) Read Iris Chang and you will see the flip side to Baker’s assertions – what happened in Nanking is the not the act of a country looking for peace.

As for the German aspect of the war, there’s just so much missing here. (I thought Sarah’s point was key on this – everyone will know of something that is missing and perhaps you just can’t write this kind of book without expanding it hugely.) Baker seems to be suggesting again and again that if Churchill would have agreed to peace then Hitler would have stopped after Poland. But why should Churchill have believed him? He promised to stop after Austria, and after being given the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia, and after demanding and receiving all of Czechoslovakia. Plus, he knew that Poland had a treaty with both France and England that demanded an attack on one of those countries would result in a response from the other two. British honor was at stake after the invasion of Poland in terms of the worth of their promises – what would a treaty with Britain mean if Churchill did not respond to the Polish invasion as the treaty demanded? Baker does not mention any of this however, in fact he frames Hitler as a man seeking peace who is forced into war by Churchill. I don’t get it.

Having said that, anyone who has read about Gallipoli would agree that Churchill loved the idea of glorious war. I really think he was a man of his time in that respect – in many ways like Rudyard Kipling. Kipling changed of course after the death of his son but Churchill remained largely untouched in a personal way by war – he could still see it as a glorious thing after WWI. There is a lot about Churchill to draw on in terms of his published writings and articles about him but to me it seemed that Baker cherry picked too much here. His derisive comment about the miracle at Dunkirk is an example (187). He neglects to mention that over 100,000 French soldiers were rescued as well, effectively preserving the French Army to fight for the later formed Free French government. And as for his comments about the destruction of the bulk of the French Navy (205) this was indeed a very dark period in British/French history. But the French Navy had to surrender – the French government was now being led by a puppet government that answered to Hitler – they were the enemy. If the French Navy did not surrender then they would return to France (as they had just been ordered) and thus fall into German hands. There was a lot behind the decision to face the French fleet with force – and none of this was presented by Baker. (Here’s a more thorough view.) He makes it seem almost cavalier – yet the British made several attempts to have the fleet surrender. And surrender of that fleet was imperative as it was the 4th largest in the world and could not fall into German hands.

Honestly, I was confused a lot while reading this book. On the one hand he writes about German atrocities against the Jews but then suggests that if Churchill will agree to peace they will all be sent to Madagascar. (204) It disturbs me enormously to read (more than once) that if only Churchill gave Hilter Poland then the Jews would have been saved. I am no fan of the widely held myths of WWII (Greatest Generation, etc) but any one who believes that Hitler would be satisfied with Poland (after his previous broken promises) is incredibly naive. And pinning the lives of the Jews on Churchill smacks of German propaganda more than anything else. But then in the middle of all that Baker would have something from Victor Klemperer or elsewhere that seemed to suggest that the Jews were damned regardless. It seemed sometimes like the text was going in circles.

I liked the idea of this book and was very impressed by the research that was done to complete it. But it is very subjective – just as subjective as those books celebrating America’s action during the war are. The cynical part of me can not help but think that the book was written this way purely to get a reaction and not because it was the best (or most thorough) way to counter the celebratory myths of the war that have been published elsewhere.

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

Hello all again.

Cannot resist:

[Colleen wrote:] Read Iris Chang and you will see the flip side to Baker’s assertions – what happened in Nanking is the not the act of a country looking for peace… he frames Hitler as a man seeking peace who is forced into war by Churchill. I don’t get it.

These things bothered me as well. I think Baker assumes a good deal of prior knowledge of World War II and its causes in his book; Human Smoke doesn’t get into Versailles or any of the above because (I was assuming as I read it) it has been covered elsewhere. But Colleen’s point is really valid. I found the book an engrossing read because it embroidered and complicated the history I already had some grasp on. For someone with only slight less familiarity and of a certain frame of mind, this book would be a real mind-blower. But for someone who knew little about the period and was hoping to learn more–particularly about Japanese expansion into Asia–this book could be confusing at best and misleading at worse.

[Colleen wrote:] Honestly, I was confused a lot while reading this book. On the one hand he writes about German atrocities against the Jews but then suggests that if Churchill will agree to peace they will all be sent to Madagascar. (204) It disturbs me enormously to read (more than once) that if only Churchill gave Hilter Poland then the Jews would have been saved. I am no fan of the widely held myths of WWII (Greatest Generation, etc) but any one who believes that Hitler would be satisfied with Poland (after his previous broken promises) is incredibly naive. And pinning the lives of the Jews on Churchill smacks of German propaganda more than anything else. But then in the middle of all that Baker would have something from Victor Klemperer or elsewhere that seemed to suggest that the Jews were damned regardless. It seemed sometimes like the text was going in circles.

I think part of what we were seeing there was the book wrestling with the idea of pacifism and whether it could have prevented World War II. Baker writes in the afterword that the pacifists “failed,” which suggests that he thinks that under different circumstances, the pacifists could have succeeded: Perhaps, implemented as state policy
or spurring a mass movement, pacifism could have kept at least a couple of countries out of the war. Perhaps a widespread pacifist movement in Germany could have prevented it from going to war in the first place. Ultimately, of course, we can’t know. But as someone who isn’t a strict pacifist, I side more with Colleen than with Baker. Maybe pacifism could have kept the United States out of the war. But the closer one gets to Germany geographically speaking, the less likely it seems to me, and the more pacifism looks like capitulation. I don’t think vocal pacifism would have saved Belgium or Holland.

Ed Park writes:

A lot of interesting comments, and it’s already hard for me to maneuver (I wanted to say chime in re Ed’s take on objectivity, but Brian’s addressed that point; also re Baker’s take on Japanese aggression, but Colleen’s got that covered).

I. This book didn’t remind me of Markson’s novels (most of which exist in the realm of the notebook, the fragment, the disintegrating/re-formed voice) so much as it did Eliot Weinberger’s “What I Heard About Iraq,” a nonfiction piece I’ve been teaching to my students. I am interested in the technique of the cento, in the strategy of repetition. The voice in “WIHAI” is clear, impassioned but controlled, and relentless; practically every entry (most just a few sentences long) begins “I heard…” Two words, vexed to nightmare.

For Baker, the two words are “It was”: “It was April 6, 1917.” “It was the summer of 1932.” “It was February 9, 1939.” The strict chronology adds to the atmosphere of doom.

I heard it was.

II. We have now reached the point where we can’t say there’s a “typical” Nicholson Baker book, or even style. A Box of Matches tapped into the same well of observations found in his first two novels, but Human Smoke and Checkpoint bear little resemblance to his trademark hyperobservational mode, in which the authorial voice notices something small, seemingly insignificant, and spins that rarity into something universal. Like Perec, he seems to want to write every sort of book that it’s possible to write.

Jason Boog writes:

Dear Friends,

First of all, I’d like to say thanks to Ed for including me on this conversation between some of my favorite writers, both on and off the Internets. It’s a real honor to participate.

I’d also like to say thanks to Ed for asking this question: “what do you folks make of the cast of characters here?” On the surface it sounds like the easy essay question asked on a Literature 101 exam in college, but I think it’s one of the best ways to unpack this sprawling work.

This book is, among other things, about how writers influence the world during wartime. It’s a question that very few writers have picked up during the Iraq War, and I applaud Nicholson Baker for raising this question today. That contemporary, unsettling theme is what differentiates this work of literary non-fiction from the shelves of World War II history books that Levi Asher noticed.

For instance, we see the writer Christopher Isherwood struggling to change the violent course of events at key moments in the book. His heartbreaking response to critics of pacifism (and the literary crowd who mocked him for his stance) really shook me on page 163: “I am afraid I should be reduced to a chattering, enraged monkey, screaming back hate at their hate.” Many contemporary writers and artists have struggled with these bestial energies in the wake of September 11th, and Americans will cope with the twinned emotions of hate and revenge for the next century.

I think Baker picked Joseph Goebbels as the perfect foil to Isherwood’s ultimately unsuccessful character. We meet Goebbels as he is working hard on his novel, but he drops everything to join Hitler’s war machine. The newspaper reports and speeches he wrote as propaganda minister were horrifically effective. Goebbels chose the complete opposite path of Isherwood, and killed millions with the hate his writings generated.

While I agree with previous writers that Baker is writing how the peace movement failed, I think we need to focus on that contrast between a nearly-forgotten pacifist writer and the most famous Nazi propagandist. Isherwood’s unpopular, peaceful ideals seem very fragile when compared to Goebbels’ terrible body of work—but they illustrate the redemptive qualities of Baker’s new book.

The history books will mostly ignore characters like Isherwood, because they could do little to alter the momentum of World War II. Human Smoke does a magnificent job of resurrecting the most powerful pacifist writings of the time—from Mahatma Gandhi’s letters to Isherwood’s prose. Many of these writings would have faded to oblivion without Baker’s curatorial eye, and they have lessons to teach contemporary readers.

Baker’s book reminds writers and thinkers that we have our own set of moral decisions to make as we write about the Iraq War (and the larger question of instability in the Middle East). Do we permanently disengage like Isherwood or to fight to change minds like Thomas Mann’s expatriate messages to his German countrymen? It’s about time somebody started asking these tough questions, because the bloody conflicts of the 21st Century won’t go away.

Eric Rosenfield writes:

Hello all,

Well, I have to say I didn’t expect the round table to get quite so involved quite so quickly–Ed just announced game on at 11 o’clock last night and here we are with the tenth long, involved email.

I want to disagree with Ed’s statement that every narrative requires a “a capable crew of good guys and bad guys”; I think most good narratives are more complicated than that, and real people can’t be divided into good and bad so easily, and I think Baker makes this case quite well. Take, for example, Churchill.

So you understand where I’m coming from, my father saw the film Young Churchill when he was a kid and ever since has practically idolized the man. My childhood was filled with anecdotes about Churchill’s wit and how the man bravely saved us from Hitler (“never have so many owed so much to so few” etc). But then we’re Jewish and it’s very easy for Jews to think highly of anyone who fought Hitler.

Churchill’s portrayal in Human Smoke isn’t particularly flattering and the Churchill who falls over himself to compliment Mussolini, cheers on the bombing of natives in Africa and the Middle East and thinks of the Jews as a bunch of Communists is a far cry from the Churchill I grew up hearing about. But at the same time, he’s portrayed as a brilliant orator, a charismatic and someone willing to make hard decisions for the cause of war. I agree with Colleen that Baker isn’t objective, but he does tell us that Poland and England had a mutual defense treaty, he does tell us that the French navy was ordered to surrender. He does tell us that Churchill, who despised Stalin, did everything he could to help Stalin’s war effort against their common enemy. Churchill is not a cartoon. And I disagree with Colleen that Baker is suggesting that Hitler and Churchill should have made peace after the conquest of Poland; that Hitler wanted the peace is indisputable, but I’m not sure the inclusion of that information is an indictment of Churchill’s decision to keep fighting.

The bigger question here is the question of two war practices used by the British (and then the Americans) over and over again: the food embargo and the bombing of civilian targets. These two realpolitik methods of conducting warfare are still used today; I remember having a heated argument with someone who accused Bill Clinton of being a mass murderer because he helped push through the UN embargo of Iraq, and Clinton’s bombs in Bosnia were killed many civilians. Baker might have been trying to get me to think that these methods are inhuman, and he may be right, but as I read on the main conclusion I came to was this is simply how war is conducted. Indeed killing civilians though siege and embargo and blockade goes back to Roman times and before; not only is it not new, but I don’t there there’s ever been a time in history when these methods were not employed in the cause of warfare.

Which is all to say that the American pacifists in the run up to the war were probably right in calling war mass murder. At the same time we are told about Hitler’s atrocities toward the Jews and Japanese atrocities in the Chinese mainland, and through all the talk of pacifism and Gandhi and civilian casualties all I could think of as I read on was that these people have to be stopped by whatever means necessary. It even occurred to me (and horrified me that it would occur to me) that if, after the war ended, we had turned around and dropped a nuclear bomb on Russia, we might have been able to bring down the Communist government in one fell swoop and stopped Stalin from killing the millions of people that he killed (many of whom were Jews). I think it’s worth peering through our instincts to recoil from the notion to consider whether or not the world would have been better off.

This then, for me, is the primary question posed by Human Smoke. Is mass murder ever justified? And, if so, can we live with ourselves afterward?

Colleen Mondor writes:

I think Brian and Jason raise some interesting questions about the message on pacifists and pacifism that Baker is exploring. As Brian suggests, there was the possibility of a pacifist movement to have an impact – but I think the better time was back in WWI. In that war pacifism would likely have had a much larger impact as there were no real “bad” guys and in many cases no one could explain why the war was being fought. (Even the leaders were largely unable to respond when Woodrow Wilson put forth that direct question.) It would have been interesting to see what connections the pacifists in Baker’s book had to WWI. Vera Brittain is the only one I have any real knowledge of and she lost her brother, fiancee and best friend in the war. She long acknowledged that WWI is what made her a pacifist. (I highly recommend her book on that war, Testament of Youth.) Christopher Isherwood’s father died in WWI; Chips Channon served with the Red Cross during WWI. I think a lot of their thoughts about peace could be very well have been rooted in the realities of war they saw/knew/felt.

I don’t think it is fair to say that the pacifist movement failed in WWII though because it was not the kind of conflict that allowed much discussion for meaningful peace. (Two aggressor nations bent on domination with the military support to back them up.) Also you have to consider that while many Europeans had learned the lesson of war as hell in WWI most Americans had not – our experience in WWI was much less. To some degree Americans still embraced the glorious war idea that Europe had already learned was a lie. So we weren’t so willing to listen to calls for peace. And as far as Germany, their anger over the Treaty of Versailles was too raw among too much of the population – they felt they were owed something in response to how they were wrongfully treated and most of the country’s leaders were unwilling to let that go.

I guess what I’m saying is that you could very well frame an interesting argument around what the pacifists learned in WWI, and what they tried to accomplish in WWII. Baker might have been trying to do this, but I don’t think he tells us enough or perhaps gets distracted by following other threads in his narrative. It’s almost like he tries to be too many things to too many people (or present too many ideas) in this book to keep any coherence. (I think Jason’s comment about comparing Isherwood and Goebbels is interesting and would have made for a great article or book.)

Eric: I based my comment concerning Churchill and peace negotiations following the invasion of Poland on several passages in the book:

Goebbels wrote in his diary. “In any event, it is the English who must decide whether the war is to continue.” p 151

>From Victor Klemperer: “On the other hand, England-France appear to believe in the prospects of a long war, since the peace offer seems to have been rejected.” p 152.
Cyril Joad’s thoughts on p 154

The suggestion on p. 168 that the Germans had no plan to invade Norway until forced by British action in March 1940. That is simply not true – see this for a good overview of the big picture about why the port of Narvik was needed by the German navy and how long the Germans had considered plans to invade Norway.

P 185 – “Hitler’s aim was to ‘make peace with Britain on a basis that she would regard as compatible with her honour to accept.'”

P 204 – “It was contingent, though, on peace with Churchill.”

And on and on and on. Baker seems to characterize Churchill all too often as a warmonger (and I don’t disagree that he did believe in glorious war – I’ve already acknowledged that) who furthered the war rather than ending it as Hitler wanted. And yet we know now (from Hitler’s broken promises before Poland and with Stalin) that Hitler’s promise of peace was never to be trusted. Thus the book reads as unbalanced to me – it is almost as if Baker is trying too hard to remove Churchill (and Roosevelt) from any heroic position that history might still be affording them – at the expense of truth.

Levi Asher writes:

So much to say.

To Colleen, about Japan and the motivations behind the Pacific war and Nanking — well, I just read a rather astonishing book called Breaking Open Japan: Commodore Perry, Lord Abe, and American Imperialism in 1853 by George Feifer (in fact, this book’s
myth-smashing about Japan/USA relations really primed me for the myth-smashing in Baker’s book). According to this book, Commodore Perry’s military humiliation of Japan in 1853 was a deeply traumatic event for the entire nation, and began a century of military/economic dominations that led directly to Pearl Harbor. The USA’s track record
in fair dealings with Japan from 1853 to 1941 is fairly similar to its track record with Native Americans. Nothing can forgive the horrors of Japan’s Korean occupation or Chinese occupation, of course. But it is a notable fact that Japan had lived in relative peace for more than three centuries before Perry arrived in 1853.

Brian, you say that pacifism wouldn’t have saved Belgium or Holland. True, especially because the Nazis were at their peak of success at this time. But what about later, when the British blockade and air raids had been taking their toll, when the Nazis failed to muster the resources to invade England and thus realized that, long term, their prospects were bleak? I like it that Baker doesn’t let us rest with easy answers in this book. Yes, we all agree that appeasement didn’t work in 1938. And it wouldn’t have worked in 1939 and probably not in 1940. But by 1941, the evidence seems to indicate that an armistice could have been established. Would this have been good or not? I don’t know, but we do know that the decision to pursue unconditional surrender came at a great cost. The Holocaust death camps, for instance, did not exist until the end of 1941, well after the peak of Hitler’s strength.

I went back to a bookstore today to look at some more World War II books (and I picked up the classic text, William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, for a refresher read). One thing that caught my eye was, separate from the World War II military books, a long shelf and a half of books about Adolf Hitler. I thought about our popular image of Hitler as some kind of dark cartoonish uber-evil human monster. Of course he seems to have been exactly that, and with a bad haircut too. But still, I have always felt (and, as an ethnic Jew, this feeling has always possessed me in a strange way) that it runs against my common sense that, in any situation, real or abstract, the Other can be evil without this evil being somehow shared, common.

John Lennon once sang “I don’t believe in Hitler”, and I know exactly what he means. Oh, I know Hitler is real, and I can recognize his face. But one thing I like about Baker’s book is that he shows Hitler as what he also really was — a frustrated politician, a failed
leader, a military flash in the pan who managed to control an impoverished nation and a chaotic small empire for a few years as it all crumbled slowly around him. According to Human Smoke and other sources, Hitler was only in control of his fate before September 1, 1939. From that point on, he was stuck in Churchill’s slow, methodical grind, just as the outclassed Japanese were stuck in America’s slow, methodical grind in the Pacific. So, now, we ask — why did the grind have to be so slow, and why were cease-fires or peace talks never a possibility? I think this is one of the more concrete questions Nicholson Baker asks in this book, and even though I don’t know enough
to know the answer, I do know that the question must be asked.

Finally … I’m glad that Jason brings Iraq and September 11 into this. It may be worth thinking of Human Smoke as a “September 11 book”, partly because increasingly positive imagery of World War II (Ken Burns’ The War, etc.) has seemed more popular than ever since that day. I also think that, like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (with which Human Smoke shares a lot, including Burton Wheeler), this book may or may not have been written as an indirect commentary on the Bush/Cheney administration, but even if it wasn’t, the shoe sure seems to fit.

Human Smoke — Part One

(This is the first of a five-part roundtable discussion of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. For additional installments: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.)

Nicholson Baker’s latest book, Human Smoke, hits bookstores on Tuesday. And we will be devoting the entire week here to discussing the book.

But I’d like to start by dedicating this roundtable discussion to Arthur Saltzman, the late author of Understanding Nicholson Baker. I had approached Saltzman to participate in this discussion, but I learned from his partner, Joy Dworkin, that he passed away a few months ago of a brain hemorrhage. He was only 54. So I devote this discussion to his critical work on Baker and offer Joy my most profound condolences.

Edward Champion writes:

hsmoke1.jpgNearly everyone I’ve talked with about Human Smoke has insisted that it’s a departure for Baker. And I apologize, noble group. They came for my views and I DID speak out! (Apologies to Pastor Niemoller.) But aside from the lack of exuberance and perverse wordplay (no “assive-aggressive” here!), I don’t necessarily think this is the case. There is certainly Baker’s concern for details here. And when I consider that moment in The Fermata when we learn that Department of Defense funding is behind that bizarre sex laboratory or the humane qualities of the Death Watch Beetles parable in The Everlasting Story of Nory, I have a suspicion that Baker’s contextual and pacifistic sentiments have been building up for some time. Perhaps even before the Bush II administration. (And I’ll leave the theory over whether Human Smoke is, in some sense, a response to the hostile reception to Checkpoint for another to explore.) Consider also also Baker’s essay, “Clip Art” (contained in The Size of Thoughts), in which Baker responds to Stephen King’s charge that Vox was a “meaningless little finger paring” by pointing out that Allen Ginsberg had sold a bag of facial whiskers to Stanford and that, therefore, parings could not be “brushed off as meaningless.”

So the first query I have is whether you think Baker’s David Markson-like juxtaposition of historical data — adhering to a very specific timeline — is sufficiently objective. Does subjective interpretation here fall upon the reader? To what degree is Baker responsible for it? I’m also wondering if Baker is, in some minor sense, playing chicken a la King. I was certainly angered, saddened, and agitated by what the book presents — particularly many of the lost opportunities at peaceful negotiation and how obdurate decisions led to horrible consequences — but part of me pondered whether some of the anecdotes here could be willfully reframed, much like the “paring” scenario, and whether this tactic was entirely fair in some instances. I think of Gandhi’s amazing December 24, 1940 letter to Hitler, in which he suggests, “We have found in non-violence a force which, if organized, can without doubt match itself against all the most violent forces in the world.” While certainly Gandhi could back this up with his own efforts, I’m wondering if the circumstances of Nazi Germany and the Schutzstaffel’s deadly realities even allowed for the peaceful resistance he championed.

The issue of responsibility — whether the so-called “good Germans” should be castigated because they couldn’t prevent this from happening — has long been an issue taken up by second-generation Holocaust historians. (Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners comes to mind.) But I was fascinated by the ways Baker pins this on political ideologies. He doesn’t outright blame people. He seems to suggest, particularly with Churchill’s suppression of The Daily Worker (eerily preceded by socialist Richard Stokes asking why British fascists are in prison without trial while The Daily Worker appears on newsstands only one month before!) that an intellectual environment of hindering, restricting, and junking certain opinions led the world down this road. (This shares much in common with Baker’s preservationist instincts, seen in Double Fold and his recent article on Wikipedia for the New York Review of Books.) What do you folks think about all this? To what degree is Human Smoke a response to the “good German” charge? To what degree is it a polemic FOR intellectual preservationism?

Also, what do you folks make of the cast of characters here? Christopher Isherwood, Chips Channon, and Victor Klemperer were just some of the many individuals here whose personal developments I found fascinating to track. And, of course, Churchill’s gusto for war and Roosevelt’s antisemitism come off particularly bad. But if Baker is presenting us with a capable crew of good guys and bad guys, as every narrative requires, do you think he’s done a decent job? But this has us returning to that question I presented earlier about subjective judgment! So I’ll shut my maw for now. Because I’m very curious what you all have to say!

Sarah Weinman writes:

Ed has offered so many interesting questions that my only response now is to ignore them and start with my take, responses to follow later on.

First, some context: I approached Human Smoke feeling a sense of guilt for how I had treated Baker’s last book, Checkpoint. I’d never read his work before and rushed through it just so I could have an opinion along with the rest of the print and online peanut gallery, but I never shook the feeling that I’d given the book a bad rap, that Baker embedded far more than my mid-twentysomething brain detected. I’m planning to revisit that book soon, and my point here is that even if Human Smoke wasn’t written as a direct response to the reaction to Checkpoint, my read of it probably reflects some desire to correct a perceived wrong, or at least concoct a more intelligent response to what Baker was after then.

Which brings me to now, the book at hand. Human Smoke seems set up to be a nearly 500-page Rorschach test, carefully designed so that whatever preconceived notions the reader brings to it will produce an equal response of shock, praise or vitriol, depending on the circumstances, political (or apolitical) leanings and the like. In my case, it’s not so much a question of whether I agree or disagree with Baker’s precis, but that my pre-formed thoughts about World War II, my dim knowledge of certain events and greater knowledge of others, creates the context for me to evaluate it. On the one hand, I think it’s phenomenal. On the other hand, as I gulped down carefully laid anecdote after anecdote, forcing myself to put the book down because I wanted a breather from the cauldron of anger, depression and mind expansion that gave me so much to think about and the beginnings of a pounding headache, I couldn’t help wondering what Baker had left out. I’ll give an example, which also illustrates the Rorschach I just described: as I turned the pages and learned more about Roosevelt’s anti-Semitism and the inexorable rise of the Nazis, I first wondered when Stephanie von Hohenlohe would make an appearance. She was Hitler’s Spy Princess after all, someone who not only had the ear of the Fuhrer but whose popularity in New York and San Francisco social circles (not to mention affairs with several high-ranking government officers) so riled up Roosevelt and the FBI that she spent the bulk of the war in an internment camp. Granted, Stephanie’s threat level may have been minimal, but considering she created such a stir during the exact time period Baker chronicled, the run-up to Pearl Harbor and just beyond, her omission struck me as odd – until I realized that this omission would probably be noted only by me.

Still, the “chicken a la king” feeling that Ed describes was very much on my mind, not just in terms of whether Human Smoke can truly be an objective read but in giving the reader the chance to make certain connections. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that my understanding of how the US-Japanese conflict dovetails with Hitler’s murderous tramplings through Europe still remains on the dim side, except that Roosevelt & co., it seems, was waiting for a good excuse to break an election promise to stay out of the war without having to strike first. Although I was struck by Baker’s juxtaposition of Roosevelt’s early anti-Semitic vitriol with later policies, I’d have liked a bit more development of this connection as it seems to jump from the early 20s to late 30s without much preamble. But this, too, made me wonder if Human Smoke may have once been twice the length, and thus twice the opportunity to be wolfed down like potato chips. (as a side point, Baker remarked in an interview – I can’t remember which one now – that he’d like to write a suspense novel of some sort. Perhaps this is it?)

More on the connections theme, I wonder if I was the only one to fixate on events taking place on September 11, or if this is an almost automatic thing to do now. Churchill decrying Hitler’s “indiscriminate slaughter and deconstruction” in 1940; Lindbergh’s much-booed speech the next year, the same day that Roosevelt made his “shoot on sight” speech. Is there a greater metaphor of looking for patterns that simply aren’t there, looking for reasons to go to war to enact, at human level, a game in one’s mind?

I agree with Ed that Churchill comes off very, very badly in Human Smoke. Almost as if he was well and truly pissed that World War I had to end and his power had been taken away, so the only way he could live and function was to do whatever he could to get war going again. Reading this made me rethink WWII from the Allied point of view; I’d always thought WWI was the pointless war, WWII with more of a firm rationale. But maybe there were simply more Archduke Ferdinands, more manipulated opportunities and missed chances at peace. Or maybe peace was never an option because Hitler and the Nazis were ready to propagate at all costs.

But in spite of my criticisms, there is one major reason why Human Smoke is a major work: it forced me to think about World War II at the detail level, on the day-to-day basis that everyday people faced when they woke up in the morning, read the newspaper, listened to the radio or huddled in a basement after a bombing or starved to death in a concentration camp. Baker’s done his best to take a noise-laden topic and distill a relatively clear signal out of it, one that promotes a certain viewpoint by the juxtaposition of particular events, of course, but still a clear signal. In doing so, I couldn’t help but flash forward to our time. The signal to noise ratio is far, far worse, with so many more and different types of media to sift through. How on earth can anyone concoct a clear signal out of what we’re going through now?

More later, as I’m looking forward to what the rest of you have to say.

Levi Asher writes:

Hi everybody —

My reading of Human Smoke went in a completely different direction than Ed’s. I take this as a dead-serious non-fiction book, in the style of Double Fold but with the increased intensity of an even more painful subject matter. I am a huge Nicholson Baker fan, but I do not detect that Nicholson Baker intended to put a lot of Nicholson Baker into this particular book. I think he has a big argument to offer, and this book is not about the writing — it’s about the argument.

The argument, as best I can boil it down, is this: despite the cozy myths of American/British grace in World War II (or “the Good War”, as we call it), Churchill and Roosevelt actually escalated and inflamed the war at many points, and also avoided many opportunities offered by the (losing) Axis powers to discuss a peace settlement that could have avoided future horrors. Despite the earnest efforts of many pacificist organizations and individuals, Roosevelt and Churchill insisted on the most militant approaches to problem-solving possible.

Churchill comes off particularly badly in this book, and I wonder if the book will be received with as much controversy as I think it will. Myself, I think this book is important because World War II books are such a cottage industry these days, and are more and more of the feel-good story variety every year. After I finished Human Smoke, I
went to my neighborhood Barnes and Noble to site with some history books and independently validate some of these facts. I was amused to find two entire shelves — two full 5-row shelves at Barnes and Noble — devoted to World War II books.

(I’m attaching a photo of this)


When I tried to look for hard facts inside these books, though, I found lots of repetition, lots of nostalgia, and lots of blood and guts and B-29s and turret shells. But I didn’t find much actual history, certainly not of the investigative kind.

That’s one reason I think Human Smoke will be an important book. I’m very interested to hear others’ reactions.

Brian Francis Slattery writes:

Hello everyone,

I believe I’ve met exactly none of you in person besides Ed, and feel I should apologize for this. If you need to know more about who the hell I think I am, my website is here ( But don’t feel like you need to know more.

Ed brought up a very large number of points, and while I was typing my response, Sarah and Levi brought up even more; I’ll take on the ones that coincide with the direction my own thoughts took while I was reading Nicholson Baker’s excellent new book.

> > So the first query I have is whether you think Baker’s David
> > Markson-like juxtaposition of historical data — adhering to a very
> > specific timeline — is sufficiently objective.

Is objectivity what Baker was going for here? I found his narrative here to be highly subjective, particularly given the basic questions he says he sought to answer (in the afterword): Was World War II a “good war”? Did waging it help anyone who needed help? Merely asking these questions, as Levi pointed out, is taking aim at the assumptions
upon which the United States’ national mythology about World War II is built, and Baker doesn’t stop there. Baker patiently dismantles the saintliness of both Roosevelts (Eleanor is an anti-Semite before page 25 is reached) and Churchill and lets the question linger as to whether Hitler was indeed bent on world domination. By the end of the book, at least in personal temperament, Churchill and Hitler are portrayed as more similar than different (p. 320; see also the Gandhi quote p. 407). And Baker goes to some length to suggest that higher-ups in the U.S. government at least strongly suspected that a Japanese attack was imminent and kind of sort of provoked them into it. All of these points and many others seem designed to chip away at the understanding of World War II that most Americans have: that Roosevelt and Churchill were the good guys and Hitler and the Japanese the bad guys; that the United States entered the war only after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Etcetera.

Not that I’m scolding. Just saying that I don’t think Baker was trying to be objective at all, and more power to him for it. I like to see national myths pulled apart and examined, and I think that, from an analytical perspective, it’s what paficism–which Baker also aligns himself with in the afterword–is particularly good at doing.

> > I’m wondering if the circumstances of Nazi Germany and the
> > Schutzstaffel’s deadly realities even allowed for the peaceful
> > resistance he championed.

I think this question can drive you absolutely crazy if you stare at it for too long.

> > The issue of responsibility– whether the so-called “good Germans”
> > should be castigated because they couldn’t prevent this from happening
> > — has long been an issue taken up by second-generation Holocaust
> > historians. (Goldhagen’s HITLER’S WILLING EXECUTIONERS comes to mind.)
> > But I was fascinated by the ways Baker pins this on political
> > ideologies. He doesn’t outright blame people. He seems to suggest,
> > particularly with Churchill’s suppression of The Daily Worker (eerily
> > preceded by socialist Richard Stokes asking why British fascists are in
> > prison without trial while The Daily Worker appears on newsstands only
> > one month before!) that an intellectual environment of hindering,
> > restricting, and junking certain opinions led the world down this road.
> > (This shares much in common with Baker’s preservationist instincts, seen
> > in DOUBLE FOLD and his recent article on Wikipedia for the New York
> > Review of Books.)

It also shares much with historian Christopher Browning’s take on the Holocaust. When I saw those ideas emerging in the book, I turned to the bibliography, and sure enough, Baker cites four Browning books–if I read the bibliography correctly, only William Shirer beats him by weight in the secondary-source department.

Christopher Browning and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, dueling historians, went back and forth for a while over many aspects of responsibility for the Holocaust, but–at least as I understand it–one of the key points was whether there was something unique to the German character that allowed the Holocaust to happen, or whether the whole perpetrator-victim-bystander-objector dynamic is something more…innate to humans generally (I despise using the word “innate” here, but it’s late, so I can’t think of anything better).

Personally, to the extent that my own opinion is worth anything, I have always sided with Browning. I found Hitler’s Willing Executioners to be more vitriol than anything, and in some ways I find the premise too easy–too hard on the Germans, too easy on everyone else. By contrast, Browning’s account, at least in Ordinary Men, which I
remember most vividly, is at once much more sympathetic and much more chilling.

On one hand, he suggests that many people, in fact, did not kill unarmed defenseless people even when ordered to; that many who did once never did so again, deserting the army or facing death themselves in the process; that in order to make the Holocaust happen, Hitler essentially had to create an army of psychopaths to do his bidding,
and even then had to mechanize because there weren’t enough people willing to do the slaughtering at the scare he required. There is some hope in that idea, a faint glimmer of it underneath all that horror.

But the flip side is that Browning’s account doesn’t absolve us. After I read his stuff, I came away with the distinct suggestion–I think with a great deal of humility on Browning’s part–that none of us really knows what we would do in such circumstances. It is very easy to judge now; much harder to actually intervene when faced with
terrible situations, even when the moral choice is clear. (Raise your hand if you’ve booked your one-way ticket to Darfur. Okay, now raise your hand if you’ve been to New Orleans to help with post-Katrina recovery. Those of you who have raised your hands are better people than I.) The even darker corner of Browning’s ideas is that the Holocaust is, alas for us all, not a unique historical event–which, sadly, the multiple genocidal episodes since World War II have borne out. The dynamic that Ed summarized so well–the restriction of ideas, of fitting everyone into tight little boxes the better to alienate
with–can be seen in the former Yugoslavia under Milosevic; it can also be seen in Rwanda, and, I imagine in many other mass killings that I know less about than I should.

> > To what
> > degree is it a polemic FOR intellectual preservationism?

I confess that I don’t know what you mean by this, Ed. But random thoughts, off of Ed’s, Sarah’s, and Levi’s responses:

1. Does Churchill come off as bad, or simply human? A deeply flawed man, a product of his time and own personal experience? Put another way: Is Baker turning him into a monster, or is he just stripping away the myth that surrounds him? I’m asking–I don’t know enough about Churchill to say.

2. Regarding national myths again, it struck me that it would be really interesting to put HUMAN SMOKE together with your average U.S. high-school textbook that covers World War II. Then your average U.K. textbook. And German textbook. And Japanese textbook. Where would the greatest discrepancies lie? Which country whitewashes its own history–its aggressions or complicity in aggressions–the most? Which aggressions or complicities in aggressions does Baker himself leave out the most? And–assuming that he researched far more than ended up in the book–why? How did he choose what to put in and what to leave out? And what were the most painful omissions?

All right, off to bed. Good night, all. And hopefully I’ll meet you all eventually.