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Up to the Minutiae

The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber

by Nicholson Baker
Random House, 355 pp., $25.00

There is much to be said for tiny signs, and we don’t have to laugh at the idea of what Erich Heller once called a “profound” semicolon in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Borges’s story “The Library of Babel” opens with a pretty deep parenthesis: “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries….” Just a pair of small curved marks, but what a difference they make. You could get the meaning here, and even the rhythm, with commas or dashes, but you couldn’t get the dizzying sense of the throwaway, of information that almost wasn’t given to us, and even now scarcely seems to matter.

Wittgenstein’s semicolon looks like this: “The philosopher treats a question; like a disease.” G.E.M. Anscombe translates: “The philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness,” which respects the writer’s syntax, but doesn’t allow the sense of a question itself being like an illness, and evacuates the wilder thought let loose by the punctuation: “It’s like a disease, the way the philosopher treats a question.” I’m not sure a semicolon can ordinarily work in this fashion at all, but here it appears to masquerade briefly as a comma, before ending up as a colon. Or it acts as some kind of double agent: a colon that will also play the comma if we want it to.

The argument, if we were arguing, might be that nothing should be too small for our attention, or perhaps that the insignificant doesn’t exist. But that argument is slightly too easy, even sentimental, and doesn’t get at the edgy interest of these details. The insignificant does exist, the world is full of things too small for anyone’s attention; but a lot of those small things actually look big, and significance hides in unlikely places. We don’t know what we are missing; can’t know; although with luck we can stumble on some of it now and again.

Well, we need a little more than luck. Nicholson Baker has always been a specialist in “microscopy,” as he put it in his first novel, The Mezzanine; anxious to be “up-to-the-minutiae,” as he said in U and I. The pun is almost as good as a piece of profound punctuation, since it evokes a person who is up to date and attentive to detail, but also up to the challenge of small things, ready to take on the care or even championship they may need if they are not to be rolled upon by things several times their size. It is possible that only a reformed admirer of large things could feel this way.

Each thought has a size,” Baker writes in the title piece of his new book, “and most are about three feet tall….” This seems an ambitious estimate to me, but Baker is after very big game, the hugest that has been known and thought. For instance:

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 fist-clenched hope, and hundreds of cellos; a thought that can tear phone books in half….

He doesn’t do too well in his quest for such a thought, but he learns some lessons along the way, which he develops into theorems: “All large thoughts are reluctant”; “Large thoughts are creatures of the shade”; “Large thoughts depend more heavily on small thoughts than you might think.” Less axiomatic, but even more persuasive, is Baker’s discovery that large thoughts are tiresome, possibly the enemy of everything we care about:

As you may imagine, by the time I had successfully formulated this second theorem regarding large thoughts, I was desperately tired of them. If I felt one looming up in a page of Tolstoy, I ran off; I hid.

Nice semicolon there; not profound, but neat and accomplished. In a chapter on punctuation, first published in The New York Review in 1993, Baker calls the semicolon “that supremely self-possessed valet of phraseology,” but there are valets and valets.

I scolded myself for my callousness toward the small. “We must refine all epics into epigrams!” I said. “We must measure only the flares and glimmers of the world, thimbleful by peerless thimbleful; nor should we grudge even the jingle of a lightbulb filament the silence of an enraptured continent!”

This may be a little further than we need to go, and Baker himself suggests that “this extreme reaction missed the point,” formulating at this stage his third theorem about the dependence of large thoughts on small ones. “The Size of Thoughts” is an early essay, though, first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1983, and the third theorem doesn’t do justice to the complicated effect and implied argument of the completed book, which includes some earlier work but also much more recent writing, as well as material from every year since 1989.

In The Size of Thoughts Baker tackles slang, an ice storm, changes of mind, reading aloud, the notion of rarity, model airplanes, a novel by Alan Hollinghurst, the replacement of the old movie projector with a system of platters, the design and manufacture and allure of nail clippers. He offers us a recipe for chocolate sauce, prints the speech he made at his sister’s wedding and a page of half-coherent outtakes from his novel Room Temperature, as well as a wonderfully vatic text (“the myths of disorder cannot moult”) written in 1982 under the influence of “nearly a hundred dollars’ worth of marijuana.” Is he scraping the barrel, couldn’t he have done without some of these ephemeras? Of course, but he’s not trying to make weight, he’s trying to make a point: about the barrel, about scrapings, about ephemeras. The very idea of throwing some of these pieces out introduces just the notions of relevance and importance that Baker wants to question.

You probably have to like terrible puns to like Baker’s writing a lot, but if you do, there are extravagant delights here: like “Brugesed and battered,” “draw-and-quarto,” “arpeggiate Lisztlessly,” and “Vault Whitman.” It’s as if S.J. Perelman had been put in charge of the whole Humanities syllabus. The funniest piece in the book, I think, although there isn’t one without a good gag or two, is “Books as Furniture” (1995), which opens with an exemplary close reading of images in mail-order catalogs from places like Crate & Barrel, the Pottery Barn, Crabtree & Evelyn, Eximious, the Company Store. It’s not just that you can, if you feel the need, buy a coffee table made of fake books, or a mirror framed by fake books, or a pencil pot covered with the replica of an old edition of Racine, or even a cassette holder that looks as if it holds books. The catalogs themselves are images of life, someone’s dream of what our dreams are, a genteel fantasy of other times and other places.

There isn’t a self-help or a current best-seller to be seen, because the men and women who live in the rooms of the mail-order catalogs never read best-sellers. In fact, they never read paperbacks.

Do they read at all? They give signs of reading, and no doubt signs are all they can give us. The J. Crew catalog, Baker tells us, shows a hard-working fellow—“on break, apparently, from his labor of hammering and gentrifying”—reading a Guide Bleu to Switzerland; and a Crate & Barrel catalog is full of signs of recently interrupted reading:

The books lie open on chairs, on hammocks, on the floor, as if whoever was reading them had left off briefly to check the status of an earth-toned lentil soup; on their pages rest studiously haphazard placeholders—a shell, a twist of ribbon, an apple, a daisy.

What are these invariably ancient books doing among all this furniture we can’t afford or don’t want? Baker is too subtle to answer this question, but his essay allows a couple of complementary inferences: that we shouldn’t sneer at the romance of reading, however faded or philistine or comic it may appear, because books need all the friends they can get; and that however tolerant we are of the use of books as accessories to design, the best thing we can do with a book, any book, is read it. Friend or faux is the joke that has been hovering throughout the essay, and Baker gives in only a page or two before the end of the piece. You’d also expect an echo of the line from the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movie (“We’re off on the road to Morocco/We’re Morocco-bound”), and there is one, but very delicately done, via the faintest sketch of “camel caravans of thought-bearing time.”

The most passionate and intensely researched piece in the book is “Discards,” a magnificent defense of the card catalogs which libraries all over the country are cheerfully scrapping: Baker calls it “cardnage.” The cheerfulness is the chief problem. Parties are held, balloons are released, gleeful jokes are made. Out with the old, online with the new. “Administrators are singling out card catalogs, I think, not as a last resort but as a first resort.” The claim is that libraries need the space, but “this in no way constitutes an argument,” Baker says. “Libraries have been running out of space since the Sumerians first impassioned clay….” This probably means that the argument is ancient rather than that it isn’t one; what really ruins the argument is that the saved space is rarely put to any use as attractive or helpful as housing a card catalog.

A card catalog, Baker suggests, is human, material history, full of the traces of time, like an old Rolodex or a great worn book. Even if you love roaming about in online catalogs, as Baker does, why would you want to shred or burn or dump these splendid shabby memorials, full of notes and adjustments, and datable by their faded color and their foxed corners. “They hold,” Baker says, “the irreplaceable intelligence of the librarians who worked on them”; and they can tell at a glance, as a computer cannot without complicated instructions, that not every pseudonym is another person, and that the eighteen different spellings of Tchaikovsky (Baker lists them) refer to the same Russian composer.

Are administrators ditching card catalogs because they hate them, as Baker suggests? Because they are so in love with the lean and healthy look of the new technology, its patent disavowal of all those ratty retrograde fumblers among the cards? Baker quotes one expert as saying that “not having to go to a library is a very important improvement in providing library service.” We see what the expert means, and it’s fun to be able to call up the online catalogs of libraries you have never set foot in. But we also see what the next improvement might be: no library service at all, or perhaps no library.

But the essay that holds The Size of Thoughts together, that makes it something other than the miscellany it needs to pretend to be, is the long, previously unpublished exploration of “Lumber.” “Now feels like a good time to pick a word or a phrase, something short, and go after it, using the available equipment of intellectual retrieval, to see where we get.” Baker goes on to say “a metaphor might work best,” something a little dingy and neglected perhaps: “It should be representatively out of the way; it should have seen better days.” He settles on “lumber,” which apart from its attractions as an ungainly verb of motion, means junk or rubbish in British English, and timber in American. The interference of these meanings with each other, once the Atlantic has been crossed often enough, is essential to Baker’s argument. We keep seeing planks of junk when historically we ought to be seeing planks or junk. The latest American literary use of the British meaning, according to Baker’s sources, is Elizabeth Bishop’s “uninteresting lumber” in her poem about Robinson Crusoe; but even there I’m not sure planks are entirely absent from our (or her) mind.

Earlier uses of the word include Swift’s “Lumber of the Schools,” Dryden’s “machining lumber,” Johnson’s “lumber of the memory,” Traherne’s “An Endless Body is but idle Lumber,” and Sherlock Holmes’s “A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across….” Johnson in his Dictionary darkly defined lumber as “Any thing ufelefs or cumberfome; any thing of more bulk than value.” Just heavy litter. Alas, this must be true of most of us; perhaps even of the large Dr. Johnson. “The most beautiful piece of lumber-poetry extant,” Baker says, is Rochester’s translation of a chorus from Seneca’s Trojan Women:

Dead, wee become the Lumber of the World,
And to that Masse of matter shall be swept,
Where things destroy’d, with things unborne, are kept.

But the most famous and most brilliant use of the word, which is also at the center of Baker’s essay, appears in Pope’s Essay on Criticism:

The Bookful Blockhead, ignorantly read
With Loads of Learned Lumber in his Head.

At first, Baker seems to be interested in tracing the sources of this image, riffling through one CD-ROM after another, as if to prove that there was nothing Luddite about his passion for card catalogs, but then you realize that scholarship, even of the idiosyncratic kind, is not the chief game here. For a start Baker tries playing his CD-ROM disks on his audio system, and describes the sound:

Eighteenth-century English poetry, as interpreted by my Yamaha stereo receiver and peripherals, generated an edgy square-wave buzz, around a low E-natural, a discordia concors lower than a table saw (except when it is cutting a piece of wood with a split end), more like one of those neck hair trimmers that the stylist pulls out of a drawer in the final phase of a haircut, but with excellent spatial separation and some gratuitous conch-shell oceania on top. Disk 3 (1800-1900, poets A-K) sounded much the same…. The CD-ROM that works best under this sort of auditory misprision, though, is Compton’s Encyclopedia…. The first track is given over to the usual vagrant digital buzzing and swooshing. But in track two, the left and right channels split, and each carries a separate inventory of audio clips. In your right ear you hear an intelligent woman reading alphabetized words like abdominal cavity, adrenal, algae, brackish, bronchial tree, catastrophic, cephalothorax, conflicting, and contour feathers, while in your left a Ted Baxtery voice booms out political clichés. (“Give me liberty or give me death!” “The British are coming!” “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!”) The woman quietly continues with: massive collapse, minute food particles, and mucous membrane, while Roosevelt angrily declares war on “the Japanese empire.”

Lumber indeed. Baker dips from one lumbersome mention to another, apparently at random and often distracted, just browsing. Did you know that one of the derivations of lumber is from Lombard, via Lombard Street in London where pawnbrokers used to do business? Hence a lumber-room was once not only an attic or what your bedroom feels like on a bad day, but a vault at a bank or pawnshop. Could you have known that there was in Natchez in the nineteenth century a firm called the R.F. Learned Lumber Company, named after Rufus Frederick Learned and dealing in timber rather than footnotes? How much do you want to know about Hawthorne’s or Housman’s or Stevenson’s or Bulwer-Lytton’s uses of the word? Baker writes in U and I of “an impatience with criticism as a literary form,” but here he has turned something like the testing of our patience into a critical and literary art.

But then just as you’re about to give up altogether, tired of the excursion through translations of Madame Bovary and meatpies in Montaigne—allowing that Baker has proved his point about the limits of relevance by abolishing the notion of relevance entirely, yet feeling there may be better places to get lost than in Nicholson’s adventures through the magnifying glass—it dawns on you that he has been up to something else all along. Or something else as well: he was rambling, but not only rambling. This essay not only feels like a Nicholson Baker novel with a slightly less nerdish narrator; it is a Nicholson Baker novel, with a narrator who has taken his mind off the interesting embarrassments of his blemishes. In place of the sequence of thoughts on an escalator ride (The Mezzanine), or the spread of thoughts while feeding a baby girl (Room Temperature), or the rise of thoughts while engaging in telephone sex (Vox), we get the size of thoughts while riffling through books and disks in search of the lost life of a worn-out word—a word which itself names and evokes lost lives.

This is where Baker’s third theorem gets refined. It’s not just that large thoughts depend more heavily on small thoughts than we might think. It’s that very large claims have often been made for small thoughts, and that these claims constitute a betrayal of the modesty they seek to praise. Nothing is stranger or more worthy of notice than the commonplace, but this proposition is itself a commonplace: poets and critics have been reminding us of the ordinary for a couple of hundred years. What’s interesting, of course, is not the reminder, or even the ordinary itself—which is going to be interesting or not, case by case, day by day, as the instances fall. What’s interesting is the perceived need for the reminder. How could we keep forgetting the ordinary—unless of course the ordinary just is what we keep forgetting?

That we ought to be able to redeem truisms is itself a truism; a proposition that can’t coherently or interestingly be made, but can be played out, as in a novel. Our hero fills his head with lumber on our behalf, because only in this way can we see that lumber is both what we have thrown out because we don’t need it and what we need because there are always treasures among what we have thrown out. Baker quotes from a nineteenth-century book called The World’s Lumber Room, by Selina Gaye, a work he characterizes as “an interdisciplinary study of ‘dust’ and its sources and users,” and then says,

Perhaps I am not so very misguided, then, in deliberately making a lumber-room of my head with the present study, so long as that room is, as Gaye contends, coextensive with the world itself. No decomposing quotation is so vile that it can’t be taken in hand and turned to good account.

The central character in Room Temperature has a fantasy about writing a “concentrated history of the comma.” The fantasy includes, as fantasies always do in Baker’s elaborately self-mirroring work, a picture of the picture others will have of the author:

See that guy there with the terrible posture? He’s the world’s authority on the comma! He’s studied the negative spaces in prose for twenty-eight years! He sees the comma as the embodiment of civilization, as the true “volute” in evolution; he’s tried to focus all of humane letters into that tiny curlicue. Can you believe it? Fruitcake!

There is genuine yearning as well as mockery in this image, as if Baker’s fictional character had wandered onto an American campus from the precision-haunted deserts of Beckett’s plays and prose. But The Size of Thoughts goes this image one better, turns from the stooped scholar and his dream of authority to the forlorn world itself; to the possibilities of finding again, if only on borrowed time, what seemed lost forever:

Lumber-room loans the short-sold world back to the reader, while storing all the poetry and prose within as a shrouded pledge. It contains the notion of containment; it keeps in mind how little we can successfully keep in mind…. Lumber becomes treasure only temporarily, through study, and then it lapses into lumber again. Books open, and then they close.

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