Nicholson Baker Fan Page


If you are surprised to see a Nicholson Baker fan page on a website devoted to Excel, don’t worry — we can explain!

Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker is one of John Walkenbach’s favorite writers. Well, if forced to choose, we’d have to say Baker is John’s favorite writer. After all, John called him “one of America’s best living writers.”

Back in 1996, John checked the major web search engines and couldn’t find any pages devoted to Nicholson’s work. So he created one. You can find John’s reviews below.

That page is, of course, entirely “unofficial” and is not endorsed by Baker or his publishers.

We do welcome contributions and new links!

Books

Baker has published eight books: five fiction and three nonfiction. These books are all in print and easy to locate:

  • Human Smoke (nonfiction)
  • Checkpoint
  • A Box of Matches
  • Double Fold (nonfiction)
  • The Everlasting Story of Nory
  • The Size of Thoughts (nonfiction)
  • The Fermata
  • Vox
  • U and I (nonfiction)
  • Room Temperature
  • The Mezzanine
  • The Anthologist

NOTE: Each of these books has its own listing at amazon.com, and we provide a direct link to each of these listings below. The amazon listings often contain reader comments that may be of interest. 

You can read about all those books below, and you can watch Nicholson Baker talk about his books in this video.

Human Smoke (2008)

The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.

Human Smoke

Opening Sentence:

Alfred Nobel, the manufacturer of explosives, was talking to his friend the Baroness Bertha von Suttner, author of Lay Down Your Arms.

Book Jacket Copy:

Bestselling author Nicholson Baker, recognized as one of the most dexterous and talented writers in America today, has created a compelling work of nonfiction bound to provoke discussion and controversy — a wide-ranging, astonishingly fresh perspective on the political and social landscape that gave rise to World War II…

Additional resources:

Buy this book on amazon

Checkpoint (2004)

Two men in a hotel room talk about assassinating George W. Bush.

Checkpoint by Nicholson Baker

Opening Sentence:

JAY: Testing, testing. Testing. Testing.

Book Jacket Copy:

Meet Jay.

Meet Ben.

Jay has summoned his old friend Ben to a hotel room not far from the nation’s capital. During the course of an afternoon, they will share a delicious lunch and will crack open a bottle of wine from the hotel minibar. They will chat about everything from Ben’s new camera to Iraq to the unfortunate fate of a particular free-range chicken.

And Jay will explain to Ben exactly why and how he is planning to commit a murder that will change the course of history.

Additional resources:

Buy this book on amazon.

A Box of Matches (2003)

I was elated to hear that Baker was working on this novel. I was even more elated when I learned that it would be in the “classic Baker” tradition of his first two novels. I abandoned the book I was reading, and jumped right into it. I was not disappointed. Well, maybe just a bit. The book is simply too short, and it left me wanting more.

A Box of Matches is similar to The Mezzanine in that both books don’t really have a plot. Rather, the appeal is Baker’s writing style and his amazing insights into mundane objects and activities. But Matches is less analytical, and has a completely different tone. Reading it put me into a very peaceful state of mind. The Mezzanine remains my favorite (I like the footnotes!), but A Box of Matches is not far behind.

John Walkenbach
A Box of Matches

Opening Sentence:

Good morning, it’s January and it’s 4:17 a.m., and I’m going to sit here in the dark.

Book Jacket Copy:

Emmett has a wife and two children, a cat, and a duck, and he wants to know what life is about. Every day he gets up before dawn, makes a cup of coffee in the dark, lights a fire with one wooden match, and thinks.

What Emmett thinks about is the subject of this wise and closely observed novel, which covers vast distances while moving no farther than Emmett’s hearth and home. Nicholson Baker’s extraordinary ability to describe and celebrate life in all its rich ordinariness has never been so beautifully achieved.

Baker won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Double Fold; Libraries and the Assault on Paper. He now returns to fiction with this lovely book, reminiscent of the early novels — Room Temperature and The Mezzanine — that established his reputation.

Additional resources:

Buy this book on amazon.

Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001)

This is a remarkably readable book, even for those who have no real interest in the subject matter. You will be surprised, enlightened, and probably disgusted.

John Walkenbach
Double Fold

Opening Paragraph:

In 1993, I decided to write some essays on trifling topics — movie projectors, fingernail clippers, punctuation, and the history of the word “lumber.” Deborah Garrison, then an editor at The New Yorker, called to ask if I wanted to review a soon-to-be published history of the world. Perhaps I should have written the review; instead, I suggested a brief, cheerful piece about the appeal of card catalogs. I began talking to librarians around the country, and I found out that card catalogs were being thrown out everywhere. I grew less cheerful, and the essay grew longer.

Book Jacket Copy:

Since the 1950s, our country’s libraries have followed a policy of “destroying to preserve”: They have methodically dismantled their collections of original bound newspapers, cut up hundreds of thousands of so-called brittle books, and replaced them with microfilmed copies — copies that are difficult to read, lack all the color and quality of the original paper and illustrations, and deteriorate with age. Half a century on, the results of this policy are jarringly apparent: There are no longer any complete editions remaining of most of America’s great newspapers. The loss to historians and future generations is inestimable.

In this passionately argued book, bestselling writer Nicholson Baker, author of The Mezzanine, Vox, and The Everlasting Story of Nory, explains the marketing of the brittle-paper crisis and the real motives behind it. Pleading the case for saving our newspapers and books so that they can continue to be read in their original forms, he tells how and why our greatest research libraries betrayed the public’s trust by selling off or pulping irreplaceable collections. The players include the Library of Congress, the CIA, NASA, microfilm lobbyists, newspaper dealers, and a colorful array of librarians and digital futurists, as well as Baker himself, who discovers that the only way to save one important newspaper archive is to cash in his retirement savings and buy it — all twenty tons of it. Double Fold, the author’s first full-length nonfiction in a decade, is a timely book on a subject of great intellectual and historical importance, a fascinating exposé written in the intense, brilliantly worded narrative style that Nicholson Baker fans have come to expect.

Additional resources:

Buy this book on amazon.

The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998)

This isn’t my favorite Nicholson Baker book. In fact, I would have to admit that I really don’t care much for this book. It has its moments but, by and large, it just doesn’t do it for me. If Baker’s name weren’t on the cover I probably wouldn’t have made it past the first 20 pages.

John Walkenbach
The Everlasting Story of Nory

Opening Sentence:

Eleanor Winslow was a nine-year-old girl from America with straight brown bangs and brown eyes.

Book Jacket Copy:

Nicholson Baker, known for his exuberantly detailed comedies of ordinary life, now turns his attention to the inner landscape of a nine-year-old American girl, Eleanor Winslow, who is spending a semester at an English school. In this good-natured and very entertaining book, Nory reawakens our images of childhood and captivates us with sophisticated insights.  Her observations are hilarious as she tells herself stories, defends a classmate, has nightmares about cows, and generally does her best to make sense of life’s particulars, noting it all down with innocence and candor.

Other:

According to Baker (quoted in the London Daily Telegraph, October 4, 1997):

“It’s about a nine-year-old American girl — one not unlike my own daughter — who comes to England and spends a few months at a school in a cathedral town.”

“Each book is the next book I was able to write or felt pressingly that I must write. With this new novel, I simply felt the need to capture the way a nine-year-old looks at the world. But I must admit that I was looking for something different to write about — something not like The Fermata. I was sexed out after that book and felt that I couldn’t even write the word ‘sex’ again.”

Additional resources:

Buy this book on amazon.

The Size of Thoughts (1996)

This book, subtitled Essays and Other Lumber, is a collection of nonfiction. Most of these were previously published; Lumber (a new work) comprises nearly one-half of the book. Thanks to this book (the Clip Art essay), I now know that my nail clipper was manufactured in 1974.

John Walkenbach
The Size of Thoughts

Opening Sentence (from the Lumber essay):

Now seems like a good time to pick a word or phrase, something short, and go after it, using the available equipment of intellectual retrieval, to see where we get.

Book Jacket Copy:

Novelist Nicholson Baker, author of The Mezzanine and Vox and called by Vanity Fair “the best American writer of his generation,” here collects over a decade’s worth of essays and journalism, including his controversial and highly praised 1994 article on the destruction of library card catalogs. His subjects range from the internals of the movie projector to the emotional tribulations of reading aloud; from the disappearance of hybrid punctuation to the mechanics of changing one’s mind; from the lexicography of dirty talk to the manufacture of the fingernail clipper. There is a wedding address, a study of the not-so-random books that are used as props in mail-order catalogs, and a recipe. The final essay, which appears in print here for the first time, pursues through several centuries of prose and poetry the vagaries of the word lumber as a metaphor for the contents of the human mind, in what becomes in the telling a dazzlingly pedantic case study of the fanaticism of scholarship and the beauty that can reside within a piece of ordinary language.

The Size of Thoughts, through its varied forays into the realms of the overlooked, the underfunded, and the wrongfully scrapped, is a funny and thought-provoking book by one of the most distinctive stylists and thinkers of our time.

Additional resources:

Buy this book on amazon.

The Fermata (1994)

This book is based on an intriguing premise: the main character has the ability to stop time at will. This is the book that first turned me on to Baker. Ten pages into it, I was hooked. After finishing it, I wasted no time in locating his other books.

John Walkenbach
The Fermata by Nicholson Baker

Opening Sentence:

I am going to call my autobiography The Fermata, even though “fermata” is only one of the many names I have for the Fold.

Book Jacket Copy:

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.

Additional resources:

Buy this book on amazon.

Vox (1992)

This novel is a transcript of a single telephone conversation between two strangers. It can easily be read in one sitting, but it’s better to savor it.

Vox

Opening Sentence:

“What are you wearing?” he asked.

Book Jacket Copy:

Vox is a novel that remaps the territory of sex — sex solitary and telephonic, lyrical and profane, comfortable and dangerous. It is an erotic classic that places Nicholson Baker firmly in the first rank of American writers.

Additional resources:

Buy this book on amazon.

U and I (1991)

This book is nonfiction. It’s a great read — even if you don’t know anything about John Updike.

U and I: A True Story

Opening Sentence:

On August 6, 1989, a Sunday, I lay back as usual with my feet up in a reclining aluminum deck chair padded with blood-dotted pillows in my father-in-law’s study in Berkeley (we were house-sitting) and arranged my keyboard, resting on an abridged dictionary, on my lap.

Book Jacket Copy:

Few writers have trained an eye on the microscopic particulars of daily life to as much critical acclaim as Nicholson Baker, the author of The Mezzanine and Room Temperature. But in this stylishly written, extravagantly funny book, Baker takes on a subject his own size — John Updike, his loomingly present literary influence and idol. Never mind that he has read only a scattering of Updike’s books and has met the author only twice. Out of memory and speculation, admiration, envy, and anxiety, Baker has constructed a splendid edifice that is at once a tribute to Updike and a disarmingly, often hilariously frank self-examination — a work that lays bare both the pettiest and the most exalted transactions between writers and their readers.

Additional resources:

Buy this book on amazon.

Room Temperature (1990)

In the same vein as The Mezzanine — but not quite as captivating (at least to me).

John Walkenbach
Room Temperature

Opening Sentence:

I was in the rocking chair giving our six-month-old Bug her late afternoon bottle.

Book Jacket Copy:

Nicholson Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine, turned a lunch hour into a postmodern Odyssey. In Room Temperature, Baker takes the reader even greater distances in the course of twenty minutes, although his narrator is obliged to be stationary, as he is giving his baby daughter her bottle. His reflections provide startling and deliciously apt takes on such things as peanut butter, the air nozzles in passenger jets, and the microscopic interactions of love.

Additional resources:

Buy this book on amazon.

The Mezzanine (1988)

In a word: incredible. Nicholson Baker at his best. This book may hold the record for the most footnotes in a work of fiction.

John Walkenbach
The Mezzanine: A Novel

Opening Sentence:

At almost one o-clock I entered the lobby of the building where I worked and turned toward the elevators, carrying a black Penguin paperback and a small white CVS bag, its receipt stapled over the top.

Book Jacket Copy:

Although most of the action of The Mezzanine occurs on the escalator of an office building, where its narrator is returning to work after buying shoelace, this startlingly inventive and witty novel takes us farther than most fiction written today. It lends to milk cartons the associative richness of Marcel Proust’s madeleines. It names the eight most significant advances in a human life — beginning with shoe-tying. It asks whether the hot air blowers in bathrooms really are more sanitary than towels. And it casts a dazzling light on our revelations with the objects and people we usually take for granted.

Additional resources:

Buy this book on amazon.

Other Writing

Besides the books, Baker has written essays and short stories for a number of periodicals, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Review of Books, and Esquire. Several of these have been reprinted in his book, The Size of Thoughts.

Following is a partial list of these writings.

  • Baker Nicholson. [the title of this article is not known]. The New Yorker, April 23-30
  • Baker, Nicholson. Narrow Ruled. The American Scholar, Autumn, 2000, 5-8.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Deadline: A desperate plea to stop the trashing of America’s historic newspapers. The New Yorker, July 24, 2000, 42-61
  • Baker, Nicholson. Grab Me a Gondola. The New Yorker, June, 1998, 64-68.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Weeds: A talk at the Library. In Reclaiming San Francisco: history, politics, culture. A City Lights anthology. Edited by James Brook, Chris Carlsson & Nancy J. Peters. San Francisco: City Lights, 1998. (p.35 – 50, with photographs).
  • Baker, Nicholson. China Pattern. New Yorker, 3 February 1997, 68-69.
  • Baker, Nicholson. The Author vs. the Library. New Yorker, 14 October 1996, 50ff.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Short Story Contest! And the Winner is…(The Remedy, begun by Nicholson

    Baker; finished by Robert Phillips.) The New York Times, Aug 18, 1996, Section 6, 38.
  • Baker, Nicholson. My Life as Harold. The New Yorker, June 26 / July 3, 1995, 92-93.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Books as Furniture. The New Yorker, June 12, 1995, 84-92.
  • Baker, Nicholson. From the index of first lines [poem]. The New Yorker, December 26, 1994 / January 2, 1995, 83.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Clip Art. The New Yorker, November 7, 1994, 165-167.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Info Highwaymen. The New York Times, Oct 18, 1994, Section A, 25.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Leading With the Grumper. The New York Review of Books, August 11, 1994, 3-5.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Subsoil. The New Yorker, June 27 / July 4, 1994, 67-70.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Lost Youth. London Review of Books, June 9, 1994, 6. Reprinted in The Size of Thoughts (as A Novel by Alan Hollinghurst).
  • Baker, Nicholson. Discards. The New Yorker, April 4, 1994, 64-70+. Reprinted in The Size of Thoughts (as Discards).
  • Baker, Nicholson. The Projector. The New Yorker, March 21, 1994, 148-153. Reprinted in The Size of Thoughts (as The Projector).
  • Baker, Nicholson. Survival of the Fittest. New York Review of Books, 4 November 1993,17-21. Reprinted in The Size of Thoughts (as The History of Punctuation).
  • Baker, Nicholson. Reading Aloud. The New Yorker, March 1, 1993, 92-94. Reprinted in The Size of Thoughts.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Exchange: Pennies for Thoughts. The Atlantic Monthly, April, 1991, 18ff.
  • Baker, Nicholson. War and Pieces. Esquire, March, 1990, 178-83. Reprinted in The Size of Thoughts (as Model Aeroplanes).
  • Baker, Nicholson. Room Temperature. The New Yorker, January 8, 1990, 31-39. Later recycled in Room Temperature.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Precipitates. In Literary Outtakes, ed. Larry Dark. New York: Ballantine, Fawcett Columbine, 1990. 118-19. Reprinted in The Size of Thoughts (as Mlack).
  • Baker, Nicholson. Men’s Room. New Yorker,August 15, 1988, 22-27. Later recycled in The Mezzanine.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Shoelace. New Yorker, March 21, 1988, 30-32.Later recycled in The Mezzanine.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Pants on Fire. New Yorker, June 2, 1986, 28-29. Later recycled in The Mezzanine.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Rarity. Atlantic, October, 1984, 36ff. Reprinted in The Size of Thoughts.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Comma. Atlantic, August, 1984, 14. In revised and greatly expanded form, recycled within Room Temperature.
  • Baker, Nicholson. The Size of Thoughts. Atlantic, March, 1983, 32ff. Reprinted in The Size of Thoughts.
  • Baker, Nicholson. K590. First published in Little Magazine. Reprinted in Best American Short Stories 1982, ed. John Gardner (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982) 116-23.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Changes of Mind. Atlantic, November, 1982, 45-46. Reprinted in The Size of Thoughts.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Playing Trombone. Atlantic Monthly, March, 1982, 39ff.
  • Baker, Nicholson. Snorkeling. New Yorker, December 7, 1981, 50-55.
  • Baker, Nicholson. The Harold Munger’s Story. StoryQuarterly, Issue 13, 1981.

Critiques

Listed below are a few published articles and books that discuss Baker.

Critiques

  • Gates, D. Hey, Look Me Over! Newsweek, February 14, 1994, 50-51.
  • Darling, L. The Highbrow Smut of Nicholson Baker. Esquire, February 1994, 76-80.
  • Stengel, R. 1-900-AURAL SEX. Time, February 3, 1992, 59-60.
  • Kaplan, J. Hot Vox. Vanity Fair, January, 1992, 118-121.

Books

Interviews

Following are links to transcripts from a few interviews with Baker.

Miscellany

Here are a few miscellaneous links that may be of interest.

Zippy the Pinhead comic
Nicholson Baker Autograph

Biography 

Born: January 7, 1957, Rochester, NY (USA)

Education: 1970-1975 The School Without Walls, Rochester; New York. 1975 Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester. 1975-1979 Haverford College, Pennsylvania (English literature)

Family: Married 1985 Margaret Brentano (two children, Alice 15, Elias nine)

Location: Southern Maine (USA)

Lineage: Great-grandson of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ray Stannard Baker (1870-1946)

Nicholson Baker at 9

Nick at Nine. Photo above by Doug Baker. Courtesy of Ann Baker.

Nick and Rachel

Nick and Rachel

Dan MacKenzie (left) after donating 7,000 newspapers to the ANR. Photo by Mary MacKenzie, March, 2002

If you like Baker…

If you like Nicholson Baker, you might like these books.

No guarantees, of course. These books are recommended by John Walkenbach and others. Clicking a book title takes you to the listing at amazon.com.

If you’ve discovered a book that may be of interest to Nicholson Baker fans, please submit the author and title using comments below.


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John Walkenbach

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