Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker
Nicholson Baker in December 2007.

Nicholson Baker (born January 7, 1957) is a contemporary American writer of fiction and non-fiction. As a novelist, he often focuses on minute inspection of his characters' and narrators' stream of consciousness, and has written about such provocative topics as voyeurism and planned assassination. His fiction generally de-emphasizes narrative in favor of careful description and characterization.



Nicholson Baker was born in 1957 in New York City, and spent much of his youth in the Rochester, New York area. He studied briefly at the Eastman School of Music and received a B.A. in philosophy from Haverford College. He lives today with his wife and two children in South Berwick, Maine. He received a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2001 for his nonfiction book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.

Baker has been a fervent critic of what he perceives as libraries' unnecessary destruction of paper-based media. He wrote several vehement articles in The New Yorker critical of the San Francisco Public Library for sending thousands of books to a landfill, the elimination of card catalogs, and the destruction of old books and newspapers in favor of microfilm. In 1997, Baker received the San Francisco–based James Madison Freedom of Information Award in recognition of these efforts.

In 1999, Baker established a non-profit corporation, the American Newspaper Repository, to rescue old newspapers from destruction by libraries.[1] In 2001 he published Double Fold, in which he accuses certain librarians of lying about the decay of materials and being obsessed with technological fads, at the expense of both the public and historical preservation.

Baker describes himself as having "always had pacifist leanings."[2]

In March 2008, Baker reviewed John Broughton's Wikipedia: The Missing Manual in the New York Review of Books. In the review, Baker described Wikipedia's beginnings, its culture, and his own editing activities under the username "Wageless".[3] His article, How I fell in love with Wikipedia, was published in The Guardian newspaper in the UK on April 10, 2008.[4]

Books by Nicholson Baker

  • The Mezzanine (1988)
  • Room Temperature (1990)
  • U and I: A True Story (1991) is a non-fiction study of how a reader engages with an author's work: partly an appreciation of John Updike, and partly a kind of self-exploration. Rather than giving a traditional literary analysis, Baker begins the book by stating that he will read no more Updike than he already has up to that point. All of the Updike quotations used are presented as coming from memory alone, and many are inaccurate, with correct versions and Baker's (later) commentary on the inaccuracy given in brackets.
  • Vox (1992) consists of an episode of phone sex between two young single people on a pay-per-minute chat line. The sex scenes in the novel, though quite vivid, nevertheless share the basic approach that Baker has taken since The Mezzanine: in this case, he explores two characters' accumulated thoughts and memories in relation to sex. For some readers, Baker's obsession with detail detracted from a hoped-for pornographic effect. Others, in reading the imaginative sex stories the two protagonists produce for one another, have perceived a budding romantic affection: in the last act they perform before hanging up, the man gives the woman his phone number. The book was Baker's first New York Times bestseller. Monica Lewinsky supposedly once gave a copy to President Bill Clinton.
  • The Fermata (1994) also addresses erotic life and fantasy. To quote the dust jacket of one edition: "Arno Strine likes to stop time and take women's clothes off. He is hard at work on his autobiography, 'The Fermata.' It proves in the telling to be a very provocative, funny, and altogether morally confused piece of work." (A fermata is a mark in musical notation indicating a long pause.)
  • The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998) was inspired by Baker's daughter Alice, "the informant", to whom he dedicates the book. In this work, Baker tries to see the world through the eyes of a curious nine-year-old American girl attending school in England.
  • Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001) is a non-fiction book about preservation, newspapers, and the American library system. An excerpt first appeared in the July 24, 2000, issue of The New Yorker, under the title "Deadline: The Author's Desperate Bid to Save America's Past." The exhaustively researched work (there are 63 pages of endnotes and 18 pages of references in the paperback edition) details Baker's quest to uncover the fate of thousands of books and newspapers that were replaced and often destroyed during the microfilming boom of the 1980s and 1990s.
  • A Box of Matches (2003) is in many ways a continuation of Room Temperature, similarly mining the narrator's store of reflections and memories, many of them domestic. The narrator is now middle-aged and has a family. He rises each morning about 4:00, lights a fire in the fireplace, and ponders. The work is admired, although some have found it rather less exuberant than its predecessor.
  • Checkpoint (2004) is composed of dialogue between two old high school friends, Jay and Ben, who discuss Jay's plans to assassinate President George W. Bush. Jay is an unbalanced day laborer who, in the depths of his anger and desperation at Bush's actions and his inability to do anything to stop them, has traveled to Washington, D.C., to kill the president. He considers many far-fetched means of assassination, such as depleted uranium boulders, flying radio-controlled CD saws, homing bullets trained to target the victim by being "marinated" in a tin with a picture of the president, and hypnotized Manchurian scorpions. Ben has met Jay in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, unaware that his friend is planning to commit "a major, major, major crime." Over the course of the novella, Ben discusses what drove Jay to plot an assassination. Reviewers have pointed out that the book is mild, and the planned violence so cartoonish as to be non-threatening.
  • Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (2008) is a history of World War II that questions the commonly held belief that the Allies wanted to avoid the war at all costs but were forced into action by Hitler's unforgiving crusade. It consists largely of official government transcripts and other documents from the time. In form it is similar to Sven Lindqvist's "A History of Bombing" (New York: New Press, 2001), which Baker includes in the book's copious list of references. Baker cites documents that suggest that the leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom were provoking Germany into war (showing, for example, that Britain bombed Germany before Germany bombed Britain) and that the leaders of those two nations had ulterior motives for wanting to participate. In the epilogue to the book he suggests that the pacifists (who are often vilified by WWII historians) had it right all along, stating: “They failed, but they were right.” [5][6] Some reviewers were dismissive of Human Smoke, the historian Noel Malcolm describing it as a "strangely childish book"[7] and William Grimes as a "self-important, hand-wringing, moral mess of a book".[8] Conservative political commentator R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. awarded his J. Gordon Coogler Award for Worst Book of 2008 to Human Smoke.[9] Other reviewers praised Baker's use of documentary research and the intricate construction of the text. Colm Toibin wrote in his New York Times review that "the issues Baker wishes to raise, and the stark system he has used to dramatize his point, make his book a serious and conscientious contribution to the debate about pacifism,"[10] and Mark Kurlansky wrote for the Los Angeles Times that "People are going to get really angry at Baker for criticizing their favorite war. But he hasn't fashioned his tale from gossip. It is documented, with copious notes and attributions. The grace of these well-ordered snapshots is that there is no diatribe; you are left to put things together yourself. [Human Smoke] may be one of the most important books you will ever read."[11]
  • The Anthologist (2009) is narrated by Paul Chowder, a little-known poet, who is attempting to write an introduction to a poetry anthology. Distracted by problems in his life—Chowder's career is going nowhere, and his girlfriend has recently left him—he is unable to begin writing, and instead ruminates on poets and poetry throughout history.




Further reading

  • Cox, Richard J. Vandals in the Stacks? A Response to Nicholson Baker's Assault on Libraries. Greenwood Press, 2002. ISBN 0-313-32344-5
  • Fabre, Claire. "Aux frontières de l’intime : l’intériorité exhibée dans Room Temperature (1984) de Nicholson Baker." Revue française d’études américaines. 2006. 113-121.
  • Richardson, Eve, "Space, Projection and the Banal in the Works of Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Nicholson Baker", in Emma Gilby et Katja Haustein (ed.), Space. New Dimensions in French Studies, Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Brussels, Francfurt, New York and Vienna, Peter Lang, 2005. ("Modern French Identities", 30)
  • Saltzman, Arthur M. Understanding Nicholson Baker. University of South Carolina Press, 1999. ISBN 1-57003-303-X
  • Star, Alexander. "The Paper Pusher." The New Republic. May 28, 2001. 38-41.


  1. ^ American Newspaper Repository
  2. ^ McGrath, Charles (2008-03-04) A Debunker on the Road to World War II, New York Times
  3. ^ Baker, Nicholson;"The Charms of Wikipedia", The New York Review of Books; Volume 55, Number 4 March 20, 2008.
  4. ^ How I fell in love with Wikipedia
  5. ^ Toibin, Colm (March 23, 2008). "Their Vilest Hour". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2010. 
  6. ^ 'Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization' by Nicholson Baker - BOOK REVIEW - Los Angeles Times
  7. ^ Review, Daily Telegraph, 2 May2008
  8. ^ Review, New York Times, 12 March 2008
  9. ^ Tyrell, R. Emmett, Jr., "J. Gordon Coogler Award for 2008," American Spectator; Volume 42, Number 2, March 2009
  10. ^ Toibin, Colm (March 23, 2008). "Their Vilest Hour". The New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2010. 
  11. ^ Review, "Days of infamy 'Smoke' and mirrors," Los Angeles Times March 9, 2008.
  12. ^ Elaine Blair (September 29, 2011 • Volume 58, Number 14). "Coming Attractions". Review on "House of Holes". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved September 13, 2011. 

External links

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