Up to the Minutiae

The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber

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

Nicholson Baker
Nicholson Baker; drawing by David Levine

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…

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