Monday, June 21, 2010

Sizing Up Nicholson Baker’s The Size of Thoughts

The Size of Thoughts is an essay collection by Nicholson Baker, originally published in 1996. The book caught my eye during a saccadic browse of a local bookshop. (Saccadic browse is the kind of phrase Baker might use, although I think that was me channeling him, rather than him verbatim.)

The essays vary in topic and style: Here we have a brief, folksy wedding speech; there we have an expansive elegy to libraries’ disappearing card catalogs—not the books; rather, the physical index cards and their enclosures.

My favorite essays were about model airplanes and nail clippers.

On the B-2 Stealth bomber: “[It] is beautiful from a distance, although in a worrisome, Transylvanian sort of way.”

On nail clipping:

When I want a really authentic experience, I sometimes use a toenail clipper on my fingernails, shuddering with the thrill of fulcrumed power; and then, for my toes, I step up to Revlon’s veterinary-gauge Nipper, a parrot-beaked personal-pruning weapon that, despite its chrome plate, looks as if it should be stored in the toolshed. A dense, semiopaque shard cut by this nineteen-dollar piece of spring-loaded Brazilian craftsmanship recently rose from what was left of my ravished toenail and traveled across the room, landing in a box of tax records, where it remains.

Later, still on the subject of nail clipping, Baker invites us to, “Think of the fearful Norse ship of the apocalypse, Nagflar, made of dead men’s nails, which will break loose from its moorings during the Monstrous Winter, when the Wolf has swallowed the Sun.” In that same paragraph, he goes on to note the connections with “a related Finno-Urgic tradition” and Lithuanian folklore.

It would take a lot more quoting to accumulate a representative sample of this book’s eclecticism. So I’ll summarize this way: You know the stereotype of the brilliant, mad scientist? Baker is like that, except he’s the mad librarian. He haunts the crevices of human knowledge for lenses that refract topics in unfamiliar ways—unless you are one of those people already dialed into the Finno-Urgic aspects of nail clipping.

With his deep dives into curio, Baker can be earnest, mischievous, funny, and wise. His prose is a demanding delight, its sprigs of wordcraft jutting out and about. (There I go trying to channel him again.)

His challenge, especially with the longer pieces, is staying on the right side of “satisfyingly obscure” versus “tediously obscure.” It’s a sliding scale, depending on the reader. I confess that I repeatedly surrendered to fatigue by minutia, and that’s saying something given my threshold—c.f., postings in the Pseudorandom category of this blog.

So, I don’t know if this book is for you. I don’t even know if it was for me. Let’s just say I respected it, with particular affection for a few essays.

However, one thing is clear: For anyone who takes wonder in humanity’s diversity of knowledge, Baker would be an endlessly interesting person to be around, provided you could keep him within hailing distance of what you think is interesting.

If you give The Size of Thoughts a try, may you meet him somewhere on that terrain.

1 comment:

  1. I hope that "The Size of Thoughts" is opened up your reading to include "The Mezzanine" by Nicholson Baker.
    The entire novella is one single (or a series depending on how you read it) diversion while on an escalator to the mezzanine of a building.
    The minutia is awe-inspiring.
    Pay particular note to the Footnotes - which are diversions of diversions of diversions.