A Bookful Blockhead tries to think big
THE SIZE OF THOUGHTS: Essays and Other Lumber by Nicholson Baker, Chatto pounds 16.99
Sunday 24 March 1996
This is where, for anyone who has read any of Baker's earlier books, The Mezzanine, The Fermata, Vox, the alarm-bells should start ringing. For they will know that Baker habitually deals in very small thoughts indeed. Why does one shoe-lace wear out before another? What is the point of putting a single sealed milk carton in a paper bag? How are ear-plugs best used? What is it like to ride an escalator? Stephen King referred to one of these books as a "little fingernail paring", which, if he had not meant it disparagingly, would have been a fair, even a clever, description.
And of course Baker is having us on, for in these essays too (mainly reprints from the New Atlantic, the New Yorker and the like) the thoughts are, at least superficially, fingernail-size. One essay in fact is devoted to a history of the nail clipper, another to model aeroplane kits (why - Baker characteristically asks - can't we have model kits of the machines from which the kits are made?), a third to the film-projector. The second longest piece in the book, "Discards", is an elegiac appreciation of the old-fashioned card catalogue and the anonymous skill and care that went into its creation. Baker loves libraries (here, as in other ways, he is heir to Philip Larkin), and no one understands better how to use them or has conveyed with such acuteness the felt quality of what Baker, after Housman, calls "the hide and seek of learning".
Yet to say that the thoughts Baker offers are small and simple is itself too simple - the situation is more paradoxical than that. It is not so much that Baker is myopic as that he suffers from an inverted visual field: everything is the wrong way up. There are in fact some very big ideas, some great themes and literally hundreds of great writers present on these pages; it is part of Baker's art, though, to use all this learning and profundity to illustrate apparently trivial topics. So Baker's extensive knowledge of American and English literature is squandered on discussions of "The History of Punctuation", "Books as Furniture" or, in the last essay, on the literary genealogy of the word "lumber", as in Pope's couplet:
The Bookful Blockhead, ignorantly
With Loads of Learned Lumber in his
This last essay, "Lumber", by the far the longest in the book and the only one unprinted anywhere else, is simply wonderful. Using all the tools at his disposal, our own "Bookful Blockhead" leads us through dozens of uses of the lumber metaphor, digressing here and there to throw some light on the limits of the new English Poetry Full-Test Database, the value of T D Weldon's scholarship, or Proust's feeling for English and American literature, before returning to his anti-theme.
Baker's forensic skills are dazzling. In this essay, for instance, he recasts the relationship between Pope and his near contemporaries, Samuel Wesley and Samuel Garth, just as in "Discards" he has identified what seems to be a new source for Hamlet (scholars have got tenure for less). But beyond the connoisseurship, "Lumber" is funny and humane, and conveys, as most of these essays do, something of the richness of our literary legacy - the vastness of the lumber-room of language.
In the final pages of his last essay Baker suggests that his lumber-crunching - his trawl through 1,300 years of literature - might stand as a reminder of "how little we can successfully keep in mind". This could, in fact, be said to be the point of all of Baker's writing: to bring our attention to the hidden depths of knowledge and experience, our own and others', on which every human life is built. In this sense, the tacit, never-articulated knowledge involved in opening a milk carton or riding an escalator (The Mezzanine) and the knowledge contained in a great library, a card catalogue or the corpus of English literature (these essays), are alike.
The value of this elusive know-how, our minuteness before it, the conceit and fantasy involved in believing we might ever entirely codify or computerise it, and the pleasure and profit in exploring little pockets of it - these are the "huge, interlocking thoughts" which, approached crab-like, sideways on, Baker has discovered and made his own, after all. One can only gasp and wonder.
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