Essays: Nicholson Baker |
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Nicholson Baker

On the Kindle and the future of reading

Nicholson Baker’s New Yorker article for August 4, 2009, about Amazon’s Kindle device, is a prime example of what he can do as a journalist. He did it before with an excerpt, published in the same magazine, from a major work about the disastrous consequences of copying library books onto microfilm. That book, called The Double Fold, is required reading for anyone concerned with the transition from print culture to whatever comes next: its author loves ink and paper too much to say goodbye to them easily. Baker’s journalism combines seemingly limitless research with the meticulous power of representation – accuracy raised to the intensity of metaphor – that has marked his fiction from The Mezzanine onwards, and which redeems even such semi-pornographic (sometimes fully pornographic) works as Vox and The Fermata. Indeed his powers of observation and registration can redeem almost anything, except for his big book of 2008 about the origins of WWII, Human Smoke, which is beyond redemption because it is based on a view of modern history so perverse that it might as well have been written about how the Pyramids were built by aliens. As if he knew that he was talking nonsense, Nicholson Baker subtracted his best gifts from a conspiracy theory seemingly designed to prove that only a high intelligence can produce a complete travesty. In that book, his sense of humour failed him. For his sense of humour at its peak, see that brilliantly entertaining little book about his professed envy of John Updike, U and I, yet another proof that Nicholson Baker can go a long way with a short form. When Nicholson Baker is enjoying the way he writes, and making you enjoy it too, there is nobody quite like him. And when he writes journalism he is revelling in his favourite thing, fine detail. Writing articles for the New Yorker, he has the advantage that the magazine’s fact checkers are on his case from line to line, thereby providing him with a secondary source of research. But the basic spade-work is all his, and always admirable. There is a mystery, however: not all of his technique is in plain sight. The rhythm of his prose, which holds even the longest of his factual essays together in once piece, is finally poetic, and therefore not fully to be analysed. In that aspect, he can’t be copied, as some of his imitators have lamentably proved. It isn’t enough to look closely: you have to know when to look up, and look around. When Baker himself forgot to look up, he wrote Human Smoke. But his other books will help us forget that one.

Read Nicholson Baker on the Kindle.