Baker in 2013
January 7, 1957 |
New York City
|Education||Eastman School of Music|
|Alma mater||Haverford College|
|Genre||Novels, non-fiction, essays|
Nicholson Baker (born January 7, 1957) is an American novelist and essayist. His fiction generally de-emphasizes narrative in favor of careful description and characterization. He often focuses on minute inspection of his characters' and narrators' stream of consciousness. Baker has written about poetry, literature, library systems, history, politics, time manipulation, youth, and sex. He has written about libraries getting rid of books and newspapers and created the American Newspaper Repository. He received a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2001 for his nonfiction book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper and the International Hermann Hesse Prize (Germany) in 2014. Baker has also written about and edited at Wikipedia. A pacifist, he has also written about the buildup to World War II.
Life and career
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 English from Haverford College.
Baker is 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, eliminating card catalogs, and destroying 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. 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."
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". His article "How I fell in love with Wikipedia" was published in The Guardian newspaper in the UK on April 10, 2008.
In 2014, Baker spent 28 days as a substitute teacher in a Maine public school as research for his 2016 book Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids. He also wrote about the experience for The New York Times Magazine.
Synopses of books by 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 note should be sustained.)
- 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.
- The Anthologist (2009) is narrated by Paul Chowder, a 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.
- House of Holes (2011) is a collection of stories, more or less connected to each other. The novellas are erotic in the sense of Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. The titular House of Holes is a fantasy sex resort in which people can engage in absurd sexual practices, such as groin transference and sex with trees. Akin to Alice, people enter the House of Holes through such techniques as tumbling through a clothes dryer or through a drinking straw. It is a book of romantic fairy tales subtitled "A Book of Raunch".
- Traveling Sprinkler (2013) brings back Paul Chowder from The Anthologist. Having finished his anthology of verse poetry, Chowder is trying to write his own lyric poems, but seems to only produce lyrics. He decides to concentrate on making songs, buying software and instruments that allow him to record complex dance music tracks. He remembers his days playing bassoon, and considers its place in classical music. He continues his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, and muses on cigars, drone warfare, traveling sprinklers, and more.
- Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids (2016) chronicles Baker's 28 days serving as a substitute teacher in a public school in Maine. Baker tried to find out "what life in the classroom is really like.”
- Baker, Nicholson (1988). The mezzanine : a novel. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
- — (1990). The mezzanine : a novel (Paperback ed.). New York: Vintage.
- Room Temperature (1990, Grove Weidenfeld; ISBN 0-8021-1224-2 / 1990, Vintage; ISBN 0-679-73440-6 / 1990, Granta; ISBN 0-14-014212-6 / 1991, Granta; ISBN 0-14-014021-2)
- Vox: A Novel (1992, Random House; ISBN 0-394-58995-5 / 1992, Vintage; ISBN 0-679-74211-5 / 1992, Granta; ISBN 0-14-014057-3)
- The Fermata (1994, Vintage; ISBN 0-679-75933-6)
- The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998, Random House; ISBN 0-679-43933-1 / 1998, Vintage; ISBN 0-679-73440-6)
- A Box of Matches (2003, Random House; ISBN 0-375-50287-4 / 2003, Chatto & Windus; ISBN 0-7011-7402-1)
- Checkpoint (2004, Random House; ISBN 1-4000-4400-6)
- The Anthologist (2009, Simon & Schuster; ISBN 1-84737-635-5)
- House of Holes: A Book of Raunch (2011, Simon & Schuster; ISBN 1-4391-8951-X)
- Traveling Sprinkler (2013, Blue Rider Press; ISBN 978-0399160967)
- U and I: A True Story (1991, Random House; ISBN 0-394-58994-7 / 1991 Penguin/Granta; ISBN 0-14-014226-6 (hard) / 1992, Penguin/Granta; ISBN 0-14-014040-9 (paper) /1995, Vintage; ISBN 0-679-73575-5 / 1998, Granta; ISBN 1-86207-097-0)
- The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber (1996, Random House, ISBN 0-679-43932-3 / 1996, Vintage; ISBN 0-679-77624-9 (paper) / 1996, Chatto & Windus; ISBN 0-7011-6301-1 (hard) / 1997, Vintage; ISBN 0-09-957971-5 (paper))
- Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001, Random House; ISBN 0-375-50444-3 / 2001, Vintage; ISBN 0-375-72621-7 / 2002, Vintage; ISBN 0-09-942903-9)
- With Margaret Brentano (his wife). The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper (1898– 1911) (2005, Bulfinch; ISBN 0-8212-6193-2)
- Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (2008, Simon & Schuster; ISBN 978-1-4165-6784-4)
- The Way the World Works: Essays (2012, Simon & Schuster; ISBN 978-1-4165-7247-3)
- Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids (2016, Blue Rider Press; ISBN 978-0-399-16098-1)
Essays and reporting
- Baker, Nicholson (8 July 2013). "A fourth state of matter : inside South Korea's LCD revolution". Annals of Technology. The New Yorker. 89 (20): 64–73.
- Baker, Nicholson (8 October 2012). "Four protest songs". The New Yorker.
In The Anthologist, the first in Baker’s two-part portrait of poet-ish Paul Chowder, there is a moment when our bumbling hero drops his pen. A Sharpie, if memory—ah, yes, right here on page 10: “Woops—dropped my Sharpie.” And it’s in this moment that, as Chowder pauses, paws about to retrieve the precious ink by which he may then illustrate his long pent-up takedown of iambic pentameter, how, if we just stop to scan some Kipling, say, “And what is art whereto we press / through paint and prose and rhyme,” we soon see, hear the silent fifth-syllable woomph that comes in the breaking of the line ("and rhyme [woomph]")…well, that we do, as he says, rest. And in this rest, the man, pen in hand, coming into view is not Chowder, still futzing around pen-less, but Baker himself, whose portraiture does a double take: dramatizing these with-us-always silences (as we say of the deceased), Baker saves our man and thus, perhaps, our souls, from the white space all around us. As if, facing down absolute nothing, Chowder allows Baker to live on in the rendering, and so, reading Baker, we too live on, between/within the rests that come before and aft, the before and aft of us. No wonder, then, not two pages later Baker gets Chowder to wondering, like a farewell letter signed “Your Valentine” (that Saint’s enduring presence of absence), “Where’s my Sharpie again?”
- 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.
While writing on Traveling Sprinkler, Nicholson Baker posted some songs in the Paul Chowder style on YouTube. The ballads follow Pauls composition design of combining dance music with protest songs and deal with foreign policy agenda.
- American Newspaper Repository
- McGrath, Charles (2008-03-04) A Debunker on the Road to World War II, New York Times
- Baker, Nicholson;"The Charms of Wikipedia", The New York Review of Books; Volume 55, Number 4 March 20, 2008.
- How I fell in love with Wikipedia
- "Nicholson Baker Goes Back to School as a Substitute Teacher". Leonard Lopate Show. WNYC radio. 20 September 2016. Retrieved 21 September 2016.
- "Nicholson baker goes back to school in 'substitute'". Buffalo News. 9 September 2016. Retrieved 21 September 2016.
- 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. Check date values in:
- "Jeju Island", 2012 "Terrormaker", 2012; "When you intervene", 2014; "Nine Women Gathering Firewood" and a "Whistleblower song", 2014
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Nicholson Baker.|
- Sam Anderson (Fall 2011). "Nicholson Baker, The Art of Fiction No. 212". The Paris Review.
- Nicholson Baker at Random House, author page
- Nicholson Baker, "A Debunker on the Road to World War II". New York Times, March 4, 2008
- Cox, Richard J. "The Great Newspaper Caper: Backlash in the Digital Age"
- Grimes, William. ""Say What? It Wasn’t a Just War After All?" New York Times Book Review
- "How I fell in love with Wikipedia". Guardian. April 10, 2008
- "The Charms of Wikipedia" New York Review of Books, volume 55, number 4, March 20, 2008 (subscription required, see also here).
- Interview about "Human Smoke" on "BackStory" radio program
- "Can the Kindle really improve on the book?" New Yorker, August 3, 2009. On the Kindle reading device.
- A radio interview with Nicholson Baker Aired on the Lewis Burke Frumkes Radio Show.
- Wroe, Nicholas. "A Life in Writing". Guardian, 19 September 2009. An interview.
- KCRW Bookworm Interview May 4, 2002
- Nicholson Baker on his literary career and how he came to write about sex La Clé des langues - 2012