Nicholson Baker: Human Smoke

Nicholson Baker's book, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, offers a startlingly fresh perspective on the political necessities and military urges that fueled the global conflict, as well as on the moral quandaries these needs and impulses provoked. Its 470-odd pages of text are built up from scores of discrete blocks of narrative -- news stories, biographical anecdotes, political pronouncements, military details, pacifist objections and initiatives, eyewitness testimony to the burgeoning Nazi horror -- most of which are less than a page long. Nothing in the author's previous work, which includes the acclaimed novels The Mezzanine, Vox, and The Fermata as well as three memorable volumes of nonfiction, prepares the reader for the departure Human Smoke represents. In early March, via telephone, I talked with Nicholson Baker about his new book. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.  --James Mustich

 

 

James Mustich: Given your past work, Human Smoke is wholly unexpected in subject and style. What led you to write about World War II?

 

Nicholson Baker: I wrote about World War II because I didn't understand it. I think that's the reason that historians are drawn to any subject -- there's something about it that doesn't make sense. I wanted to work my way through what happened slowly, and look at everything in the order in which it took place.

 

JM: You've constructed the book in a way that allows the reader to work through it in a similar fashion. The discrete paragraphs of prose, presented with no linking narrative, analysis, or argument, convey information without the guidance provided by more conventionally shaped historical narratives.

 

NB: Thanks for seeing that. What is a war? It's a label we place in front of a million decisions. Each decision -- to kill, to sign a petition, to write a letter, to make a speech, to attack, to lie, to surrender -- was made at some point in somebody's day. Part of what I wanted to do was recapture that truth for readers, and for myself. I wanted to apprentice myself to the dailiness of the war's beginning phase. It's truer and more frightening that way -- when you're afloat on a little dingy in the midst of it all.

 

JM: Nearly every one of the blocks of narrative has a chronological marker. "It was July 25, 1939." "It was September 15, 1940." There's a ticking timeline that the reader is following, and, because each element of the narrative is discrete, the reader is forced to focus upon it with a different kind of attention than he would bring to the same information if it were embedded in a seamless chronicle. That, in fact, is one of the most striking effects of the book: broken up into hundreds of separate events, opinions, and actions, the story of the beginning of World War II -- a story many of us think we know well -- takes on an unfamiliar and not easily apprehended power.

 

NB: I certainly felt I had an idea of World War II, and it's probably the idea that many people share: there was this insane aggressor, and there was really only one way to proceed in resisting him. What I didn't realize is that there were many voices belonging to reasonable, interesting, complicated people who had a different way of interpreting the possible responses to the Hitlerian menace.

 

JM: You let us hear those voices in the book, and that is one of Human Smoke's revelations. Next to a prominent figure like Gandhi, we meet a relatively obscure American pacifist like Clarence Pickett.  

 

NB: Pickett was a quiet guy -- head of the American Friends Service Committee -- who went to Germany in 1938 and quickly realized that his work for the foreseeable future would be helping the Jews, because their peril was so evident and so horrifying. His first response to what he witnessed was to try to get a bill passed in Congress that would allow the entry of many thousands of German children -- it was really Jewish children -- outside of the existing immigration quotas, which were very stringent. Dozens of newspapers wrote editorials in favor of the bill. He got Helen Hayes and even someone from the DAR to testify in support of it. He tried for months to get the bill passed. And he failed. But he did have some smaller successes.  

 

The interesting thing about Pickett is that he's also one of the most forceful opponents of our military response. So you have the same people who were really trying to help the people that needed help fleeing Germany also saying, "Don't build fleets of airplanes and try to bomb the Germans into being good human beings."

 

JM: The extent of the British bombing of German cities before the Battle of Britain -- before the Germans bombed London or anyplace in England -- was surprising to me.  

 

NB: It surprised me, too. It's not as if it's hidden; if it's hiding, it's hiding in plain sight, because it was discussed in the New York Times and The Times of London. But it's not part of the story that historians generally dwell on, because it's still a little bit uncomfortable. Churchill thought that bombing the cities of the Ruhr valley would "cut Germany at its tap root." So when he came to power in 1940, he reversed Chamberlain's policy of restraint and began bombing German cities by night. I think that this attempt to do to Essen and Cologne what Hitler had done to Guernica and Warsaw was a terrible mistake. But I don't expect everyone to read this book and come to that conclusion.

 

JM: In your Afterword, you ask: "Was the war necessary? Was it a good war? Did waging it help anybody who needed help? Those were the basic questions I hoped to answer when I began writing." Having gone through all of the research and thought involved in composing Human Smoke, do you now have answers, however tentative, to those questions?

 

NB: Just as the people who lived through the Second World War thought different things on different days, I think everybody who goes through that period carefully now thinks different things on different days. But I am closer to the pacifist side, in that I think that the British response to German aggression, which was to try to starve the Continent into a state of revolt and to terrorize German civilians with bombing raids, was part of the total catastrophe. In other words, it didn't make things better; it made things much worse. It brought to the forefront of German society the most radical elements. In fact, you could make the argument that a historian like Shlomo Aronson does in passing in one of his books, that the bombing campaign united the German nation behind Hitler, and actually contributed to the sustaining of his power.  

 

JM: Recently, although I can't recall exactly where, I came across a statistic that had a special resonance because I had just finished reading Human Smoke: in World War I, 90% of the fatalities were military personnel, while in World War II, 90% were civilian. It seems as we progressed through the 20th century, the violence of warfare became more indiscriminate.

 

NB: I think that's true. I wouldn't want to pronounce on those numbers, but I think the basic truth of the ratio is worth thinking about.

 

The other thing to say is that I stopped the book on December 31, 1941. Most of the people who were to die in the period we call the Second World War were alive. We were standing on the edge of a cliff at that point. The worst phase of the Holocaust was yet to come, in 1942 and 1943. And the first big firebombing attacks by the British came in early 1942. One of the strange experiences for me was to go through this period that everybody rightly thinks of as a lighter phase of the war, and realize how incredibly barbaric it was even then -- just awful, right from the beginning. That's part of the reason I subtitled the book "the End of Civilization." Even before the worst period of the war had started, there was a kind of systematized brutality that was unprecedented, and that we're still recovering from.

 

JM: It's troublesome to read about Churchill's insistence on the relentless pursuit of what were in essence haphazard but deadly bombing campaigns in the early days of the conflict. And while it in no way mitigates the horror provoked by the Nazi atrocities which you also describe, I was stunned to read of Lord Hankey's proposal to dispense anthrax from airplanes throughout the German countryside. Given recent history, the word "anthrax" invokes more terror than it might have a decade ago.

 

NB: I think that's true. I did not know that the planning for biological and chemical warfare was so widespread in England, and even in France before France fell. It was news to me that there had been talk, even in the First World War, of dropping Colorado beetles on German potato crops and that kind of thing. It's troubling to see how often Winston Churchill is a proponent of massive programs that are really aimed at civilians -- starvation blockades and chemical warfare stockpiles and so on. History isn't a seesaw. If you have a really bad regime on one side, the actions on the other side don't automatically become good. It doesn't work that way.

 

JM: In concert with yours I read another book, published a year or so ago: Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan.

 

NB: By Grayling, a very good book.

 

JM: In his conclusion, he includes a quotation I wanted to share with you. It's from a United States Navy airman, Admiral Ralph Ofstie, who had served on the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Grayling writes, Ofstie said that "as the Allied bombing campaigns of the war had shown, strategic bombing was 'inherently inaccurate' and no matter how its objectives were defined it inevitably involved 'mass slaughter of men, women and children in the enemy country'. It was not only militarily ineffective, but with its 'ruthless, barbaric methods' it lowered the moral standards of the society whose forces carried it out."   

 

Now, here's what is of particular note in what you just said about Churchill: "'Must we,' asked Admiral Ofstie, 'translate the historical mistake of World War II into a permanent concept merely to avoid clouding the prestige of those who led us down the wrong road in the past?'"

 

NB: Well, there you go. What's somewhat puzzling is that Churchill himself knew what the reaction would be to any sort of aerial attack on cities, because in 1938 he said that in a future war British cities would be attacked by bombing, and that the response would be that all men would want to join the fight because they would be so incensed by this cowardly manner of attack. Which is a very natural response: when something drops on you from the air and blows up a bunch of buildings and kills people in their sleep, the reaction is going to be rage, confusion, and a search for something to destroy in retaliation. It can't possibly be a good thing to create those emotions in a country. That's why that passage by the Admiral you just read is a very good one to ponder.  

 

JM: Running throughout Human Smoke is also a narrative of America's political and military preparations for its eventual involvement in the conflict. These seem to be pragmatically necessary -- indeed, smart -- but also coldly calculated to provoke Japan.  

 

NB: Yes. Of course, individuals are responsible for individual actions -- the pilots who flew over Pearl Harbor and dropped bombs on those ships did a terrible thing as part of an attack on a military base. It was also militarily irrational, a kind of suicide gesture. But there was a lot of maneuvering on the part of the Roosevelt administration to get the stars aligned so that that attack would happen. There's just no question about that; you don't even have to look at the decoding of diplomatic cables or anything else. FDR's own admiral thought it was a bad idea to have the fleet confined in one place way out in the middle of the Pacific.  

 

JM: While your selection and arrangement of the material certainly leads one to question received ideas about the war, you leave ultimate judgments to the reader. And by deciding to stop your chronicle at the end of 1941, you emphasize what to me is the most profound effect of your labors: stripping the insistent inevitability from our thinking about not only World War II, but about history itself. In a way, I sense that it's not precisely history you're after, but something more like experience; you're trying to animate the past with the uncertainties and equivocations that, one might say, distinguish living from history.

 

NB: Yes, the equivocations, the confusions, the contradictions. There's no way we can live through or comprehend something so big that happened so long ago. We've lost true history. But if we are willing to tolerate the contradictions, and if we suffer through events rather than ticking them off, we may at least get closer to understanding what happened than if we grip the handrail of a carefully polished and reassuringly heroic narrative.

 

JM: Let's take a step back and talk about the writing of the book.

 

NB: Sure.

 

JM: In your Afterword, you explain as follows. "I've relied on newspaper articles, diaries, memos, memoirs, and public proclamations, each tied as much as possible to a particular date, because they helped me understand the grain of events better than the secondary sources did." I'm struck by that phrase "the grain of events." It seems to me particularly appropriate to your ongoing literary enterprise. Starting with your first book, The Mezzanine -- in which a man, returning to his office from a lunch hour of milk, cookie, small errand and a stroll, rides up an escalator -- and on through later works like The Fermata and A Box of Matches, you seem to have dedicated yourself to apprehending "the grain of events." While the events were once small -- riding an escalator, feeding a baby a bottle in Room Temperature -- and they now, in Human Smoke, occupy the world-historical stage, your granular attention remains the same. Is that a valid observation?   

 

NB: Definitely valid. In The Mezzanine, I wanted to tell the story truthfully of a man on his lunch hour, and to have everything in the proportion that it actually had in his life. He happened to be a businessman, but what he really was thinking about was shoelaces and earplugs, and the way the light fell on the escalator. In this book, I think the participant I had in mind was a guy like Christopher Isherwood, in Hollywood and then in Haverford, Pennsylvania, listening to the radio, reading the paper, and receiving the story of the war bit by bit -- he had a fragment on Tuesday and then he had another fragment on Friday. So he, and all the newspaper readers and radio listeners, had to make sense of these cataclysmic events happening far away as fragments. They were riding the escalator of the war.  

 

I want things, in all their intricacy, to be attached to a certain moment in time, so that's why all my books seem to take place in small periods, or as a succession of moments. I guess it's almost a learning disability that I have.

 

JM: In Human Smoke, this natural impulse of yours, applied across an uncharacteristically broad canvas, is especially telling. By taking moments in the war's history and not stitching them together in a sweeping narrative, you force us to be more alert to the grain of those moments than we otherwise would be. The contextual determinism of a larger narrative would color each moment's meaning, depriving it of its existential power. If you're looking at World War II as the drama of Churchill's heroic defense of the Western world against the savagery of a madman, Churchill's individual decisions, however brutal they might be, will always be redeemed by his larger purpose; encountering them as we do in Human Smoke, they are elements in a simpler moral equation, albeit one that may be less far-reaching in the long run. It's like the larger story supplies a calculus that changes the meaning of all the terms. You want us to consider the terms before they were altered -- before what happened next became inevitable.

 

NB: Yes, I'm thinking now of the moment when Winston Churchill was made Prime Minister -- his first Cabinet meeting. His first action was to order "a very large roundup of enemy aliens and suspect persons." The vast majority of these enemy aliens were Jews. Churchill was a brilliant and inspiring rhetorician, but one of the first things he did as the head of the British nation was to put German Jews in jail. Tens of thousands of Jews -- who had just been fortunate enough to get out from under Hitler only a few years before -- spent the entire war in jail. If you have the completed narrative in mind, perhaps you'd look at it a different way. But if you look at it action-by-action, each event has a very different flavor.  

 

JM: The question then becomes this: does what we're calling the grain of events put us more in touch with some kind of moral truth than the narratives we construct afterwards? You can only construct a narrative in retrospect; you can never live in the story you will one day be able to construct. You're living moment-by-moment, in the grain of events, while that grain may one day require a coat of shellac in order to blend into the colors of the story.  

 

NB: Some after-the-fact storytelling is inevitable, and, in fact, very good and useful. But then we want always to be able to enrich the stories, or maybe change the stories with a fresh infusion of specificity. I just hope the book will make people think a little.

 

JM: Let's talk a bit about Mohandas Gandhi, who comes in and out of the book. He's not often a figure that one thinks of in connection with World War II -- or certainly I never did.

What was your interest in adding his voice to the mix?

 

NB: Gandhi was such an important figure to the pacifists of the '30s, and he was such an extraordinary embodiment of nonviolence, that I thought it was necessary to have him in there. When he would say something about the war, it was to some extent news -- and he was sure to have a response that was different from that of other world leaders. He was important for another reason as well: his country was suffering under the British Empire, and yet he was leading a very singular kind of resistance to it. At the time he was speaking about the violence in Europe, his followers were in jail as prisoners of the British government.  

 

It isn't so simple as to say that his responses are right and everyone else was wrong. He's offering one extreme view, and I think it's a useful one to hear in the midst of the incredible urge, basically an urge to kill, which was overtaking the world in 1939 and 1940. At that point even W. H. Auden, theretofore an avowed pacifist, said to Isherwood, "The truth is, I want to kill people." The war fever that overwhelmed people is a part of why everything went wrong. The longer a war lasts, the more brutalizing it becomes. So Gandhi's voice is useful in that he addressed all that.  

 

What do you think about Gandhi's presence in the book?

 

JM: I thought it was surprising, as I said, but telling in just the way you mentioned. He's a figure of great moral force, and also of some practical, if difficult, wisdom. I'll risk sounding silly to say that his voice seems to come from a higher plane of being than those of the other leaders whose pronouncements we read; yet what that means in terms of a course of political or military action is open to question.  

 

NB: Right. I think that some of the pacifists looked goofy. It was sort of humiliating to be a pacifist in England in 1939 and 1940. The newspaper, Peace News -- the printer refused to print it. Pacifism was almost taboo. And the people who continued to say that airplanes shouldn't be taking off from England and flying deep into Germany and dropping firebombs on cities were really looked at as pariahs. But maybe that goes with the territory; maybe you have to be willing to look ridiculous at the time to offer a lesson to the next generation.

 

JM: Speaking of ridiculous, I'm going to take a leap that may prove to be just that. In your increasingly varied body of work, I've been tracing a common thread. If I recall correctly, a critic reviewing The Mezzanine when it first appeared said that the book was an attempt to rescue private life from oblivion, to make privacy itself matter in a way that it normally doesn't; I think that's right. Now it seems to me that in Human Smoke you're trying to do the same thing in the public realm by being faithful to the moment-by-moment-ness of the war as it happened, rather than revisiting the way the war is comprehended in retrospect. I sense an urge to protect moments, and the cultural memory they represent, from being forced into orderings of cause and effect that don't do justice to the true character of the experience and our equivocal understanding of it.

 

NB: I think you may understand me better than I understand myself -- and I mean that seriously. Some of the things that I put in are just terrible things that happened. Some people are shot near a bomb crater, and a woman gets out and sits on the edge of it, crying, and she's shot and falls back in; I find that so devastating that the larger context -- of who were the bad guys and who ordered it to happen and all that -- becomes almost irrelevant. It's as if you have to be there for a moment at the bomb crater, or, I don't know, in a ship that's being shot at by an enemy torpedo, in order to really get it. Maybe there's some equivalence there with the attempt to regain private life; you don't really regain the moral element of historiography unless you can live feelingly through these events.

 

JM: The horrific content of some of these half-page entries is haunting. This one has stayed with me since I read it:

Ninety Jewish children and infants were locked in a house under Ukrainian guard. It was August 1941. Their parents had been shot, and they'd been given no food or water. Some German soldiers alerted two chaplains, who got in touch with a staff officer, Helmuth Groscurth. Groscurth, the son of a Lutheran minister, was the man who had tried to stop the SS's atrocities in Poland by distributing General Blaskowitz's reports among members of the high command. He'd been banished to the front for doing so.   

Groscurth went to the house immediately. There was a terrible smell. Children were licking the walls. One was unconscious. He made inquiries. The children were to be killed soon, he was told, under orders from the SS. He asked for a delay, and he got the children water and bread. He requested a reconsideration. There was a meeting and a decision: Groscurth was overruled. The children were killed by Ukrainian militiamen, who trembled as they shot them. </blockquote>

NB: I don't even know what to say about that. That's why I pulled myself out of the book. What could I say? I found that incident in Raul Hilberg's book called Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945. Hilberg was one of the first and best Holocaust historians; he recently died.  

 

 

Sometimes, despite the fact that you're reading through masses of material, you just can't not think about a certain event, for it seems to capture the reality of the entire situation so much better than any set of statistics.

 

JM: I've read that it was looking at headlines in bound copies of the New York Herald Tribune that got you started on this project. How did you actually go about the research? How did you determine what to try to digest? The book has a massive bibliography. 

 

NB: I knew that I probably was going to stop before, in a sense, the war really got started, and that helped me focus. I read everything I could read, and when I had something I didn't understand, I'd dig deeper. I live near a very good university library, so there were lots of books on the shelf that I could look at. Google Books is an enormous help, because you can find things that then lead you in new directions; that's really a new resource for anybody doing historical work, because it helps you find proper names so quickly. And the New York Times was always there. When I became curious about a particular event, I would then read the paper from that day, and there was often something surrounding the story I'd been seeking that would send me down yet another path. It was sort of like a strawberry plant -- they grow out from one plant and then plant themselves, so there's another little plant. That's the method that I used. I brought no real background knowledge to the task -- I mean, I had the normal American's knowledge of the 20th century, but nothing more than that before I began research on the book.

 

JM: You had a very interesting article in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books on Wikipedia.

 

NB: Thanks!

 

JM: In discussing your own absorption in the online encyclopedia, you write that "the work that really drew me in was trying to save articles from deletion, which became my chosen mission." You even plump for the creation of a special home for deletions, a "Deletopedia."   

I imagine there must have been a lot of outtakes from Human Smoke.    

 

NB: Oh, certainly, I cut out many things. The book was potentially enormous. Any other person who wrote a book in a similar style could come up with an even thicker book that had almost no overlap with my own. I'm hoping that one of the implications is that everybody could write their own book by going to their own library and doing the research. And maybe they have a responsibility to do that. But I do seem to have this urge to rescue things. I don't want things to expire, and I want little things to be appreciated. I want quiet lives to be celebrated. I love people who have been, I don't know, quietly heroic. I want them to have some moment in which somebody says, "Nice job."

 

JM: Your work in Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper -- and the initiative to save bound volumes of newspapers that sprang out of it -- is another rescue mission you've dedicated yourself to. You made an enormous commitment to saving sources that are true to the experience of a particular time in a way that other sources are not.

 

NB: I do think that the words that rolled off the printing presses or came out of the loudspeakers at a particular time still have a lot to teach us. Sometimes we don't pay attention to a story because it was on the front page; we think that the secret documents must be more important. And they are important. It's just that you have to ask, what does it mean if everyone in the city of New York bought a copy of the New York Times and saw the headline, or sub-headline, "Woods Are Bombed," about the bombing of the Black Forest? You know, it's a very public attempt to set the forests of Germany alight very early in the war. It's just bizarre. You have to stop and think about that and separate it from some other things. You have to kind of rescue it -- in a sense, you have to rescue it from the story in which it's embedded.

 

JM: That's well put. Reading the Wikipedia article soon after I'd finished Human Smoke, I couldn't help imagining a "Wikihistory" along the lines of what you've done in this book.

 

NB: A Wikihistory? You mean that you use Wikipedia partly to do...

 

JM: No, you use the wiki process to construct a history. For instance, let's say you posted Human Smoke on the web (this is entirely hypothetical, I don't want your publishers to get worried about this!) But let's say you posted Human Smoke as a document that people had access to as they have access to Wikipedia articles, to add new and relevant materials in appropriate places. 

 

NB: Filling in from their reading and experience, yes, that would be fascinating. I think you're onto something. And the working knowledge that each of us has about a period of history is kind of like a foggy, disorderly Wikipedia article -- what you read on a given day is the latest little edit of that. We're all doing those edits -- it's part of being thinking human beings.

 

JM: I uncovered an interview you did around the time Double Fold came out in 2001, in which you said this: "The process of searching has a long and distinguished history. I like it that often the only way to find something is to go the old camel caravan route of the paper search, but combining it with some new odd citation that you found using Web Crawler."

 

NB: Ah -- one of those lost search engines of yesteryear.

 

JM: Exactly. I'm interested in your thoughts on the prominence in our lives now of the search engine. Its influence is so pervasive that I find my first reaction, when I've misplaced a book, is to walk over to my computer and type the title into Google, as if that will help me locate the volume in my house. There's a new assumption taking root in our nervous systems that things are easily discoverable. And certainly many more things are accessible now than before. So it's a brave new world for the process of seeking. 

 

NB: That's true, the sheer findability of word-strings and obscure facts has changed research completely. Working on Human Smoke, I often had a lot of books out of the library, and sometimes I would be trying to verify that a certain quotation was on a certain page. I wouldn't be able to find it, but I'd look it up on Google Books and find that, yes, it was on page 35, and then I'd go to the book. It's a very strange thing, and I think that all in all it's a good thing. I did find, though, that the books that I had out from the library gave me a richer experience. When I read a book through, especially a diary, like Klemperer's great diary, or Mary Berg's diary, it just worked better -- it took its shape in my mind more fully, it became something truer than it was when it was just a set of hits on a search engine. I think that books will survive all these new ways of finding things, and will be enhanced by them. So I guess I don't feel any sense of horrible opposition or threat. I think there's always a layering of one way of recording ideas over the others. I mean, think of radio and TV and the web and books -- they're all chugging along pretty happily. Sometimes it gets a little confusing, but for the most part, I think we've found new things as a result of the various ways of searching that we've come up with; which is not to say that the old indexes and concordances and dictionaries of etymology are not also still valuable.

 

JM: That's an excellent segue to a subject I want to raise solely because it's one of my favorite pieces of prose, and that's your essay entitled "Lumber," which is contained in your collection The Size of Thoughts. For readers unfamiliar with the piece, let me explain that it's a 150-page essay on the history of the word "lumber" and the idea of the "lumber-room" in English literature. In it you create something truly distinctive, at least in contemporary literature, a mode of discourse that is a mixture of erudition, scholarly whimsy, and real intelligence in the exploration of a recondite and limited subject that you then use to illuminate many other themes. 

 

One definition you quote in the essay shows that "lumber," before it took on the meaning it has now, just meant "old stuff." A "lumber-room" was kind of the Platonic ideal of an overflowing attic. Part of what's always been interesting in your work, and is particularly interesting now that you've turned your attention to the historical record, is the way it takes piles of "lumber" and shapes them into useful, capacious, fetching mental furniture.

 

NB: Well, I enjoyed writing that essay. In fact I had a huge amount of fun. I learned a lot. I didn't know what I had ended up with, but when you describe it, it makes sense. 

 

Isn't it true that we always need some way in? I mean, everything is potentially interesting, but it's daunting. It's kind of a blank wall of limitless stuff unless you have some particular point of entry that will pull you in, and that will then lead you in another direction. So part of what you have to do is come up with self-assignments that draw you over to the next aisle of the library, or help you type in the next thing in the search engine -- whatever it is!

 

JM: As you say at the end of the essay, it's that work of apprehension and composition –- the work of the shaping hand -- that turns lumber into treasure. That's what you've been attempting to do, and I think have done quite successfully, in all of your books, from The Mezzanine through Human Smoke, if in different ways and on different scales. 

 

If I may, I'd like to read the close of your "Lumber" essay -- first just because I love the way it sounds, and second because I hope it might provoke some readers to seek out The Size of Thoughts. I'd also like to know if you think it has any application to your work on Human Smoke

All the pages I have flipped and copied and underlined will turn gray again and pull back into the shadows, and have no bearing on one another. Lumber becomes treasure only temporarily, through study, and then it lapses into lumber again. Books open, and then they close. 

That's pretty good, Nick.

 

NB: Oh, gosh, thanks -- you caught me there. I didn't know you were going to read that one. I still think that if you open a book, everything becomes still, and you and this handheld thing are sort of tethered together, and it pushes everything else away. There's a virtue in its being very difficult to go anywhere else. You're physically on a certain page of that book, and there is no hyperlink -- although those links can be very helpful sometimes, like when it might be nice to know who some minor figure is, and trace that out through an endless branching of references. But if you do that, you're going to lose that world that's there, that you're sort of holding in your hands, that has a potential to become treasure if you can sit still with it for a while and think about it. 

 

JM: Are you working on any new project?

 

NB: I've got a novel half-done, and I'm rewriting a screenplay, so I'm working on some stuff.

 

JM: More stuff -- good! I'll be waiting in the lumber-room.

 

                                                                                                             March 6, 2008          

 

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