The Size of Thoughts, a collection of essays by Nicholson Baker, is a high-speed, dizzy-making romp of a book: it gallops higgledy-piggledy into dark groves of modern marginalia—finger-nail clippers, discarded card catalogs, punctuational evolution—then, darting back, debouches into open meadows of amateur epistemology and hyper-literary marriage toasts; and all the while the reader is riding him by the snaffle, shouting, “Whoa, boy!” But it’s no use because this is one horse that never learned to trot. Baker’s dozen-and-a-half essays are strictly for the word-jockey; they are the work of a turbo-charged Prosicrucian, bedecked and bedaubed with Mandarin-English Paterisms, bird-of-paradise neologisms, and caviar burps of ecphonesis. Or, to reboot with a new metaphor, they are a thick gumbo of last week’s left-overs (more than a couple of these pieces have the taste of outtakes from, or research for, one of Baker’s novels), gummed together with a hearty broth-base of self-conscious concinnity. The brew is thick and hard as Hell—or hard-boiled egg yolk—to swallow unless you’ve got a big throat.
What would you think if I wrote an entire book review that way, supposing for a moment you would read an entire book review written that way? You might find it clever or ostentatious or both, but you would certainly say it was exhausting to read. (Incidentally, it is much more than exhausting to write; it is painful.)
What, then, would drive a man to write an entire book that way?—because that is what Nicholson Baker has done. His writing is doubtless better than my pastiche, but I’m afraid the overall effect is much the same.
In the last number of the Free Press I tied into Baker and Baker’s hero, John Updike, in a review of Wendell Berry’s latest book. I accused them of cultivating a fastidious irrelevance and called them bores with nothing to say. With the article turned in, this began to bother me. Who was I, after all, to go shooting off passing criticism at established writers or even “impressive stylists,” as I called them in my review? Besides the impudence, there was a certain ingratitude and dishonesty involved, for nothing I’ve ever read in any of the approved organs of literary journalism has given me more pleasure than Baker’s article about punctuation published in the New York Review of Books a few years ago. But even that was not the worst of it. What made me feel especially guilty was that I hadn’t read the Baker essay I obliquely referred to in my attack. Of course, there is nothing too unusual about book reviewers slating books they haven’t read, at least not at Yale, but it’s still bad form and, in this case, a source of nagging guilt.
There was nothing for it but for me to go out and buy Baker’s new book of essays and read the damned piece about old film projectors for myself. And now that I’ve read it, along with the rest of the essays in the book (all right, most of them), I am ready to go after the preening toff one more time.
It is said that Baker is one of the few successful writers working today
who really cares about the language. Each of his sentences shows evidence
of having been carefully worked over, recast and recast again till at length
there is a sheen on every phrase, every word almost, like the sheen of
tumbled rocks. And it is true: his sentences do look worked over, in every
sense of that loaded phrase. Sometimes one is grateful for his pains, as
when he describes the pleasures of sorting through the tray of a card catalog:
“My fingers could arpeggiate Lisztlessly through them, the lead hand’s
fingers feeding card clumps to the trailing hand, scanning, rejecting,
repositioning, in a minute or two. Just as often, however, the writing
seems overworked over, as in, shaken down and mauled. No one could doubt,
for instance, that the writer of this sentence cares a great deal about,
and for, his language:
But a really large thought, a thought in the presence of which whole urban centers would rise to their feet, and cry out with expressions of gratefulness and kinship; a thought with grandeur, and drenching, barrel-scorning cataracts, and detonations of first-clenched hope, and hundreds of cellos; a thought that can tear phone books in half, and rap on the iron nodes of experience until every blue girder rings; a thought that may one day pack everything noble and good into its briefcase, elbow past the curators of purposelessness, travel overnight toward Truth, and shake it by the indifferent shoulders until it finally whispers its cool assent—this is the size of thought worth thinking about.
—Matthew Boudway, a sophomore in Branford College, will attend Oxford next year.
Joseph A. P. De Feo
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