The Size of Thoughts Essay - Critical Essays

Nicholson Baker

The Size of Thoughts

Nicholson Baker’s collection of eighteen essays is divided into six sections: “Thought,” “Machinery,” “Reading,” “Mixed,” “Library Science,” and “Lumber.” The illustration on the book’s cover—a brown fedora set in an X-Y axis—gives a hint of what is inside. This design conveys a witty, unexpected conceit: THE SIZE OF THOUGHTS: ESSAYS AND OTHER LUMBER, a potentially weighty title, may refer not to the measure of the man, but only to an empty hat.

Nothing is beneath Baker’s notice—including the computer collection of typographical detritus that is the subject of the piece “Mlack”—but not all of the mental gymnastics here consist of “small thoughts . . . happy to run around in their colorful swimwear under the brutalist of noons.” “Discards,” for example, a lengthy meditation on the scrapping of library card catalogs in the information age, provides a hazard warning—delivered in an amusing, lighthearted fashion, of course— about what might be lost in the modern rush to computerize.

Clearly Baker’s mind—the true subject of most of the essays in this collection—functions much like the superannuated library card catalogs he admires. While some might find that these essays constitute much ado about nothing, they are ultimately not merely clever but wise. While one’s primary pleasure lies in the manner in which Baker expresses himself, his exposition of complicated ideas is frequently admirably lucid, and behind his fey facade sometimes lurks insightful commentary on contemporary life. Today the essay is practically a lost art form. How refreshing, then, to encounter a mind so antic, so idle but revved up that it can dwell almost endlessly on the fine points of model airplanes, at the same time taking its own measure as it goes along.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, March 15, 1996, p. 1235.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 5, 1996, p. 1.

New Statesman and Society. IX, March 22, 1996, p. 40.

The New York Review of Books. XLIII, June 20, 1996, p. 64.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, April 14, 1996, p. 12.

The Observer. March 17, 1996, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, March 11, 1996, p. 52.

The Review of Contemporary Fiction. XVI, Fall, 1996, p. 201.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 5, 1996, p. 22.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, May 5, 1996, p. 4.