May 24, 2013
John Lukacs on Nicholson Baker’s ‘Human Smoke’
Posted on Apr 18, 2008
By John Lukacs
This book is bad. To review a bad book is more difficult—more precisely: more wearisome—than to review a good book. A bad book is bad for many more reasons—more precisely: in many more instances and ways—than how and why another book is good. There is a deeper reason for this difficulty. This is that in our perception of every human act the why? is already implicit in the how? Our dislike of any expression by a human being, including a book, instantly rises out of the why. Why did this person do, or write, or say this? Yet this normal reaction must be controlled, or tempered, by Samuel Johnson’s plain and wise and classic admonition: “Intentions must be gathered from acts.”
So, in this case of Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke,” I must try my best to separate my discussion of the how from the why. That is: the written evidence from an imputation of its author’s motives.
“Human Smoke” pretends to be a history of the origins of the Second World War. To begin with, its time frame and, consequently, its proportions are senseless. Its first item, on its first page, relates something from August 1892. There follow three pages, Baker-lite items, about the First World War; then 27 pages until Hitler’s assumption of power; then another 99 pages, 1933 to September 1939, about the origins of the Second World War—which is Baker’s main subject. So he declared in the subtitle of his book: “The Beginning of World War II, the End of Civilization.” Yet after “the End of Civilization” come 336 pages about the history of the war, ending with the curious date of Dec. 31, 1941, more than three weeks after Pearl Harbor. How (and why) was Dec. 31, 1941, the End of Civilization?
And now to the main how question. What do all of these pages contain? Most of them are clippings from newspapers. I quote Baker from his afterword: “The New York Times is probably the single richest resource for the history and prehistory of the war years. ...” George Orwell once wrote that nothing is very accurately printed in a newspaper: a reasonable maxim by a deeply honest Englishman. What would Orwell think of Nicholson Baker? Baker’s villains are Hitler, and Churchill, and Roosevelt. Orwell admired Churchill. Really, there is no arguable equivalence here.
Some of Baker’s newspaper clippings are interspersed with clippings from published books. They are sequential in time, but many of them make little sense. Some of them, and Baker’s presentations of many of them, are full of inaccuracies and errors. To list them would fill something like a 10,000-word review. Yes, it is more difficult to review a bad book than a good one. Besides—or not so besides—many of these items are badly written. In many instances Baker presents them with his comments, and then ends them with a repeated thumping of a muffled gong: “It was June 17, 1940”; or “It was January 2, 1941.” Sometimes his very dates are wrong. Worse than that: Perhaps one way to review this book is to write a parody of Baker’s method and style. Here is one—very random—sample:
On Page 334, Nicholson Baker writes: “The United States sent its first Lend-Lease boatload of food to England. Lord Woolton, minister of food, was waiting for it on the dock. ‘Cheese!’ he said. He ate some Wisconsin cheddar from an opened crate. ‘And very good cheese, too,’ he added.
“There were four million eggs on the boat, as well, and nine thousand tons of flour. It was May 31, 1941.”
John Lukacs writes:
“Nicholson Baker’s book was published by Simon & Schuster. The New York Times printed a long interview with this celebrated writer, written by Charles McGrath, who visited him in his home. Nicholson Baker ate a grilled cheese sandwich. It was February 29, 2008.”
On Page 35 there is a snippet of an American’s interview with
I have just finished writing a small book about one of Churchill’s speeches (on May 13, 1940, his “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” speech) and about its then reception. There are six and a half lines about that speech in Baker’s book, with three major mistakes about its reception.
In his afterword, on Page 474: “The title [of this book] comes from
But, now, about the why. Why did Baker write this badly jumbled, half-baked book? Now I must say something in his favor. He is a pacifist. But pacifist, too, is an often inaccurate word. He writes, and thinks, that the Second World War was not A Good War, that it was a disaster, that indeed it was the End of Civilization.
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