Nicholson Baker Essay - Critical Essays

Baker, Nicholson


Nicholson Baker 1957-

American novelist, nonfiction writer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Baker's career through 2001.

With the publication of his debut novel, The Mezzanine (1988), Baker earned critical appreciation for imbuing the minute trivialities of a modern lunch break with unseen philosophical and personal significance. In subsequent novels, including Room Temperature (1990), Vox (1992), The Fermata (1994), and The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998), Baker similarly turned his obsessive, microscopic vision to dissections of parenthood, sexual fantasy, and childhood. Baker has also published an idiosyncratic, self-deprecating homage to author John Updike, U and I (1991), for whom Baker harbors a special fascination. During the mid-1990s Baker generated considerable controversy through his condemnation of library policies that dictate the disposal of card catalogs and the wholesale destruction of valuable newspaper collections, as detailed in Double Fold (2001).

Biographical Information

Born in Rochester, New York, Baker displayed an early interest in mechanical inventions and the arts, a creative disposition encouraged by his parents, who met each other while attending the Parson's School of Design in New York City. Baker began playing the bassoon as a fourth-grader, and his love for music later became evident in his writing. He spent his first year of college at the prestigious Eastman School of Music, where he enrolled with the intention of becoming a composer. However, he changed his major to English and transferred to Haverford College, earning his undergraduate degree in 1980. Baker then went to work on Wall Street, first as an oil analyst, then briefly as a stockbroker. After more than a year in New York City, Baker moved to Berkeley, California, to be with Margaret Brentano, whom he married in 1985. While living in Berkeley, he attended a two-week writing seminar with Donald Barthelme at the University of California. After successfully publishing several pieces of short fiction in the New Yorker and the Atlantic, Baker moved his family back to the East Coast, where they settled in Boston. He worked at various temporary jobs as a technical writer and word processor, while continuing to develop his fiction writing skills. Baker's literary experiments prompted him to consider that his peculiar approach to storytelling would be better served by abandoning traditional plot structure. This culminated in the publication of his first major work, The Mezzanine, in 1988. Baker continued to build his literary reputation with his novels as well as his collected essays in The Size of Thoughts (1996). During the 1998 Bill Clinton presidential scandal involving Monica Lewinsky, interest in Baker's novel Vox soared when it was revealed that Lewinsky had apparently purchased a copy of the book—which centers around a phone sex relationship—for President Clinton. In a 1994 article published in the New Yorker, titled “Discards,” Baker admonished library administrators for destroying card catalogs, a bibliographic format that Baker views as invaluable accretions of unique, specialized knowledge. Baker has asserted that this knowledge and data is lost in the conversion to electronic databases. Baker subsequently became an ardent advocate for the preservation of deaccessioned library copies of original late nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century American newspapers. In 1999 he purchased a segment of a large newspaper collection auctioned off by the British Library, a sale that he was unable to prevent despite his public activism. He subsequently founded the American Newspaper Repository in a New Hampshire warehouse, over which he presides in an effort to save other newspapers of historical value from destruction.

Major Works

Exhibiting an affinity for minutiae and ponderous disquisition, Baker is noted for transforming otherwise banal human activities into finely wrought descriptions of thought and serious consideration. His technique of extreme magnification and loitering contemplation is described as creating a “clogging” effect in his fiction, thus slowing narrative time to a near standstill while retraining the reader's attention on otherwise overlooked objects and minor events, all presented through Baker's scrupulous authorial subjectivity. The Mezzanine, an essentially plotless, stream-of-consciousness novel, examines in great detail the lunch-hour activities of a young office worker named Howie. His simple lunch—a hot dog, cookie, and milk—and purchase of a new pair of shoelaces are juxtaposed against his reading of a paperback edition of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. Baker's digressive novel contains copious footnotes, some of which are several pages long, while following the ruminations of Howie as he contemplates a variety of everyday objects and occurrences, including how paper milk cartons replaced glass milk bottles, the miracle of perforation, and the nature of plastic straws, vending machines, paper towel dispensers, and popcorn poppers. Room Temperature, like The Mezzanine, is structured around an isolated segment of time, in this case a period of twenty minutes during which the protagonist, Mike, feeds his infant daughter her bottle. In this compressed time frame, Mike reflects upon his life, moving randomly through his childhood, college days, and tender moments with his wife and their new baby. Baker's next book, U and I, is a genre-defying departure from his previous novels. Ostensibly a paean to John Updike, whom Baker considers his literary mentor though the two have hardly met, U and I chronicles Baker's sincere—and somewhat pathological—admiration of Updike as well as his peevish envy of the gifted older author. In addition to celebrating Updike's genius and inventing fantasies of meaningful interactions with the author, Baker employs a self-styled form of “memory criticism,” in which he relies on his own—often faulty—memory of Updike's writings, rather than rereading or studying them in preparation. This method is intended to reveal the essence of the author's influence without the distorting effects of scholarship.

Baker's next two novels, Vox and The Fermata, are provocative forays into literary pornography. Vox revolves around an extended phone sex call between two single adults, Jim and Abby, who exchange highly explicit sexual fantasies. As in Baker's earlier novels, time in Vox is compressed, in this case limited to the duration of an actual telephone conversation. The Fermata, presented as the autobiography of a man named Arno Strine, takes as its premise the protagonist's ability to stop time for everyone in the world except himself—the book's title refers to the musical notation for a pause or hold. Rather than use this suspended period, which he calls the “Fold,” to steal money or possessions, Arno uses it to fondle and sexually exploit women or to write pornography and then masturbate. Though adamant that he is harmless—because he refrains from raping the women outright and because he is clean-cut, conscientious, neat, and well educated—Arno is still a chilling voyeur and stalker. Eventually he finds true love and returns to graduate school, relinquishing his supernatural power over time. In The Size of Thoughts, a collection of essays, Baker delves deeply into his preoccupation with triviality, including model airplane kits, nail clippers, and a recipe for a chocolate confection. The volume includes two major essays, “Discards,” Baker's previously published exposé on the destruction of library card catalogs, and “Lumber,” a lengthy etymological study of the word “lumber.” Together, these essays reaffirm Baker's belief that the sum of tiny details, often overlooked or ignored by most, is what makes the objects we see and use every day both relevant and meaningful. As Baker suggests, by exploring the connections that form the histories of words, manufacturing processes, or the accumulated knowledge contained in card catalogs, people build understanding and knowledge and thus honor the wisdom of the past. The Everlasting Story of Nory describes one year in the life of a nine-year-old girl whose family has moved from California to a small town in England. In company with Baker's other novels, there is no actual plot but instead the work is formatted as a record of Nory's thoughts and observations during her fourth grade year. Double Fold is a philippic written against the practice in libraries of destroying original documents in order to make them accessible in other ways, such as microfilm or microfiche. A major departure from Baker's usual work, the book describes his personal and costly crusade to save as many bound, original, complete runs of major United States newspapers as possible. Unfortunately, in the name of creating space on library shelves, many have been pulped or sold to dealers who supply pages for personal birthdays, anniversaries, or other events. Baker singles out the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the British Library, and the libraries of Yale University and the University of Chicago for special criticism and traces the funding for the debacle to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford and Mellon foundations. Baker makes a number of recommendations—portions of which are now being implemented in major research libraries in the United States—and calls into question the current trend of creating digital images of print originals, suggesting that this new technology may lead to the wholesale pulping of the actual books and periodicals.

Critical Reception

Baker's approach to fiction, particularly in The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, has been critically acclaimed for its originality and linguistic virtuosity. As critics have noted, these novels showcase Baker's trademark style: highly descriptive, focused prose; fierce attention to detail; and delight in the odd, the mundane, and discrete slices of time. However, reviewers have been sharply divided regarding the literary merit of his subsequent work. While many commentators have disapproved of Vox and The Fermata due to their perceived vulgarity, others have found them fascinating, erotic explorations of contemporary, post-AIDS sexual mores. The Fermata has been strongly criticized as chauvinistic and dull at best, and insidiously misogynistic at worst, even leading some reviewers to demand a reevaluation of Baker's previous work. Even more sympathetic critics have conceded that, at three hundred pages, Baker's longest work of fiction, the masturbation fantasies of The Fermata exceed the reader's patience and interest. Baker's literary experiment in The Everlasting Story of Nory has met with mixed reviews. While some found his effort to convey the inner life and experiences of a nine-year-old year girl perceptive and touching, others viewed Baker's project as ill-conceived and tiresomely sentimental. Likewise, Baker's eccentric perspective and unorthodox approach have led to uneven assessments of his essays and nonfiction works. His homage to Updike in U and I has been viewed as an engaging and innovative literary autobiography by some, though others have found Baker's use of Updike as a foil for himself egotistical and disingenuous. The Size of Lumber has been generally praised for its two major essays, despite the suggested inferiority of the collection's slighter pieces. As with his essay “Discards,” Baker's attack on library policy in Double Fold has attracted heated debate among librarians, bibliophiles, and scholars. Though undoubtedly winning sympathy and a measure of publicity for his cause, Baker has been criticized for undermining his case by arguing polemically and ignoring the realities of historical inquiry. His fiction has been favorably compared to that of Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Powers, and Steven Millhauser.

Principal Works

The Mezzanine (novel) 1988

Room Temperature (novel) 1990

U and I: A True Story (nonfiction) 1991

Vox (novel) 1992

The Fermata (novel) 1994

The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber (essays) 1996

The Everlasting Story of Nory (novel) 1998

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

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Michael Harris (review date 1 April 1990)

SOURCE: Harris, Michael. Review of Room Temperature, by Nicholson Baker. Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 April 1990): 6.

[In the following review, Harris praises the details and intricate observations recorded in Room Temperature.]

Many look but few observe, as Sherlock Holmes noted to Dr. Watson, and a technical writer named Mike, the narrator of [Room Temperature, a] short second novel by Nicholson Baker (the first was Mezzanine) is definitely one of the observers. Bottle-feeding his six-month-old daughter, nicknamed “the Bug,” on a fall afternoon in Quincy, Mass., in the apartment he shares with his working wife, Patty, he asserts that...

(The entire section is 355 words.)

Julian Loose (review date 19 April 1991)

SOURCE: Loose, Julian. “Odd Couple.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 147 (19 April 1991): 34.

[In the following review, Loose commends the comedy and complex ruminations in U and I, noting its examination of the rivalry between Baker and author John Updike.]

U and I, an idiosyncratic essay on John Updike (the “U” of the title), is a creepy piece of madness, and its author, Nicholson Baker, an enragingly irreverent smart-ass. If this sounds a little severe, I should explain that these comments come from U and I itself. To anticipate criticism is often to disarm it, as Baker knows well (“Who will sort out the self-servingness of...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

Galen Strawson (review date 19 April 1991)

SOURCE: Strawson, Galen. “Writing under the Influence.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4594 (19 April 1991): 20-1.

[In the following review of U and I, Strawson objects to Baker's egocentric view of literary interpretation and his erroneous assessment of John Updike.]

U is for Updike, and U and I records Nicholson Baker's admiration for the man and his writing. The psychopathology of his relation to Updike is fairly remarkable, and the book raises some familiar questions about the phenomenon of literary influence. It is written in free fantasia form, and it may be an act of love. But it is also highly ambivalent, and it is astoundingly egocentric....

(The entire section is 3421 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 12 May 1991)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Psoriasis and All.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 May 1991): 3, 9.

[In the following review, Eder discusses U and I, commenting that the work seems to be a plea directed at John Updike for acknowledgment.]

In The Mezzanine, Nicholson Baker extracted a whole personal cosmology out of a lunch hour, much of it spent on the escalator returning to his office. In Room Temperature, he harvested another crop of autobiography and musings from an hour spent giving his baby a bottle and putting her to sleep.

Miniaturist of time and experience, one of our most original and gifted new writers, Baker is the...

(The entire section is 1370 words.)

William Scammell (review date 25 May 1991)

SOURCE: Scammell, William. “Sorry It's Late, Will This Do?” Spectator 266, no. 8458 (25 May 1991): 32.

[In the following review, Scammell offers a negative assessment of U and I.]

First I made the usual phone call, to a man I've never met, sitting in a building I've never visited, presiding over the literary half of a magazine I seldom read and whose politics I disapprove of. ‘Anything to review?’, I said. For some perverse reason I like reviewing. It brings in a little money, it flushes out the opposition (those with erroneous attachments), it keeps my name vaguely afloat in the public prints, it allows me to sound off or let fall a quotation (my overnight bag...

(The entire section is 571 words.)

Cyra McFadden (review date 9 February 1992)

SOURCE: McFadden, Cyra. “All the Right Buttons.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (9 February 1992): 2, 9.

[In the following review, McFadden examines the plot, style, and characters in Vox, noting the clever humor and wordplay.]

Reader, would you pick up the phone? Thank you.

Nicholson Baker's novel Vox is cast in the form of a telephone conversation. I thought that we ought to discuss it the same way, except that our chat will be cheaper. In the book, Jim and Abby meet on an adult party line, VOX2, with a $2-per-minute charge.

Their conversation is explicit, often funny and, above all, erotic. Talk about “reach...

(The entire section is 1079 words.)

Peter Kemp (review date 6 March 1992)

SOURCE: Kemp, Peter. “Answering Machines.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4640 (6 March 1992): 20.

[In the following review, Kemp criticizes Vox, noting that its intended erotically-charged prose ultimately is more boring than arousing.]

In U and I (1991), Nicholson Baker expresses an especial admiration for John Updike's Self-Consciousness. It is a predictable preference. For self-consciousness, it's increasingly apparent, is Baker's mainstay as a writer. Immersed in circumstances close to his own, the narrators of his first two novels, The Mezzanine (1989) and Room Temperature (1990), characteristically alternate between...

(The entire section is 1092 words.)

James Buchan (review date 14 March 1992)

SOURCE: Buchan, James. “It Makes You Go Blind.” Spectator 268, no. 8540 (14 March 1992): 31-2.

[In the following review, Buchan comments on Vox and U and I, acknowledging that Baker is a talented writer, but panning the works for their descriptions of common, everyday events in minute detail.]

Anybody who has travelled on public transportation in the United States will know that many Americans delight in telling their intimate histories: it is part of their notion of Liberty.

Nicholson Baker is an artist of this confession compulsion. His people plump themselves down, pale and atwitch from long study and self-abuse, and quite soon...

(The entire section is 1086 words.)

Julian Loose (review date 26 March 1992)

SOURCE: Loose, Julian. “Keep Talking.” London Review of Books (26 March 1992): 18-19.

[In the following review, Loose provides a favorable assessment of Vox and an extended discussion of Baker's previous writings.]

Howard Rheingold, in his recent Virtual Reality, explained the idea of ‘cyber-sex’: how someday we will be able to don sensor suits, plug into the telecommunications network and ‘reach out and touch someone’ in ways entirely unforeseen by Alexander Graham Bell. Speculating about the impact of such artificial erotic experience, Rheingold turned to an already up-and-running technology—to ‘telephone sex’, the adult party lines...

(The entire section is 3240 words.)

Robert Towers (review date 9 April 1992)

SOURCE: Towers, Robert. “Secret Histories.” New York Review of Books 39, no. 7 (9 April 1992): 35-6.

[In the following excerpt, Towers discusses the dialogue, characters, and storyline in Vox, noting that the work is an amusing read.]

Nicholson Baker is a fiction writer of great charm who may or may not be a novelist. Certainly narrative is the least of his concerns. In The Mezzanine (1988) the “action” begins with the narrator's entrance into the office building where he works and concludes with his ascent of the escalator to the mezzanine floor. The interval between these two events occupies almost as many pages (135) as Laurence Sterne devoted...

(The entire section is 1265 words.)

William H. Pritchard (review date autumn 1992)

SOURCE: Pritchard, William H. “Tradition and Some Individual Talents.” Hudson Review 45, no. 3 (autumn 1992): 481-90.

[In the following excerpt, Pritchard offers a favorable review of Vox, praising the “finely-tuned conversational sentences” and “inventive words.”]

The most original and ambitious novel published earlier this year was Robert Stone's Outerbridge Reach, about which I've had my say in another place. After Stone, the two novels that seemed to me most fully realized and distinct are Nicholson Baker's Vox and Caryl Phillips' Cambridge. Baker is thirty-five, Phillips thirty-four; Baker is a WASP and Phillips is a West...

(The entire section is 756 words.)

Ross Chambers (essay date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Chambers, Ross. “Meditation and the Escalator Principle (on Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine).” Modern Fiction Studies 40, no. 4 (winter 1994): 765-806.

[In the following essay, Chambers explores the narratological and philosophical significance of open-ended digressions and subjective contemplation in The Mezzanine. Contrasting Baker's novel with Descartes's Meditations, Chambers contends that the discontinuous narrative and trivial private preoccupations of The Mezzanine serve to shift the narrative structure of the novel in favor of “progressive extenuation” and “paradigmatic lingering” rather than closure.]


(The entire section is 17067 words.)

Joanne Trestail (review date 6 February 1994)

SOURCE: Trestail, Joanne. “Riding the Pause Control: What Would We Do, Asks Nicholson Baker, If We Could Step in and out of Time?” Chicago Tribune Books (6 February 1994): 3.

[In the following review, Trestail discusses the plot and style of The Fermata, acknowledging that the work is original, funny, and contains descriptions of precise detail.]

One way to talk about Nicholson Baker's books is in terms of their subject matter, and that's easy. The Mezzanine (1986), Baker's heavily footnoted first novel, follows an office worker through his lunch hour as he buys shoelaces, uses the men's room, rides escalators and ponders his stapler. The second,...

(The entire section is 1357 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 13 February 1994)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Time in a Bottle.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 February 1994): 3, 8.

[In the following review of The Fermata, Eder finds fault in the novel's distasteful preoccupation with voyeurism and sexual exploitation.]

Poor Achilles. He never could catch that tortoise, not because he was slow or the tortoise speedy but because Zeno wouldn't let him. In the famous paradox, the tortoise gets a 10-meter start, say, and by the time Achilles runs the 10 meters, the tortoise has crept 10 centimeters; when Achilles goes the 10 centimeters, the tortoise has done a millimeter, and so on. But the rules are stacked. Achilles doesn't catch up in the...

(The entire section is 1187 words.)

Trev Broughton (review date 18 February 1994)

SOURCE: Broughton, Trev. “Clever-Diction.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4742 (18 February 1994): 20.

[In the following review, Broughton provides an unfavorable assessment of The Fermata, faulting the book for its excessive use of puns and euphemisms.]

Arno Strine [in The Fermata] can stop time. Or rather, he can stop time for everyone else while he indulges his passion for interfering with women's clothing, preferably while they are frozen in the act of interfering with themselves. To do this, he has developed elaborate routines in which he stops time to plant dildos in wastepaper bins, or to write raunchy short stories for women to discover by...

(The entire section is 757 words.)

Tim Parks (review date 19 February 1994)

SOURCE: Parks, Tim. “Time Must Have a Stop.” Spectator 272, no. 8641 (19 February 1994): 28.

[In the following review, Parks criticizes The Fermata, noting that despite “the hilarity of some of the set pieces” and many astute observations, the book quickly becomes overbearing.]

[The Fermata's] Arnold Strine pushes his glasses up on the bridge of his nose and time stops, the world around him stops. But Arnold is free to move. He can walk around and observe his frozen fellow beings, he can, or could, steal anything he wants, go anywhere he wants, or just catch up on his work before starting the world again with a second adjustment of his glasses....

(The entire section is 838 words.)

Adam Mars-Jones (review date 24 March 1994)

SOURCE: Mars-Jones, Adam. “Larceny.” London Review of Books (24 March 1994): 3, 6.

[In the following review, Mars-Jones examines the plot and structure of The Fermata, faulting the book for its overusage of euphemisms and its adolescent stance towards sex.]

The hero of The Fermata has an intermittent gift for stopping time, which he exploits entirely for purposes of sexual satisfaction, but Nicholson Baker's trademark as a novelist has always been a fetishising descriptiveness that retards the speed of events almost to the point of non-existence and has in the past generated much literary joy. The ‘action’ of his first, novel, The...

(The entire section is 3045 words.)

Cathleen Schine (review date 7 April 1994)

SOURCE: Schine, Cathleen. “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.” New York Review of Books 41, no. 7 (7 April 1994): 14-15.

[In the following review, Schine provides a negative evaluation of The Fermata, denouncing the repetitive use of euphemisms and the tedium associated with the retelling of an act over and over.]

In his new novel [The Fermata], Nicholson Baker turns his full attention to the lonely art, the art of masturbation. The narrator, Arno Strine, possesses a strange gift: he can stop time, halting the world around him. “I first stopped time because I liked my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Dobzhansky, and wanted to see her with fewer clothes...

(The entire section is 2720 words.)

Francis Spufford (review date 22 March 1996)

SOURCE: Spufford, Francis. “Consuming Passions.” New Statesman and Society 9, no. 395 (22 March 1996): 40.

[In the following review, Spufford offers an unfavorable assessment of The Size of Thoughts.]

There was a Victorian naturalist named Frank Buckland who liked to eat what he studied: jaguar steaks, armadillo stew. Nicholson Baker displays something of the same urge, only refined and let loose on the zoo of consumable things. They don't have to be consumer goods, let's be clear. The sensibility that gave the chief character of The Mezzanine “Panasonic three-wheeled vacuum cleaner, greatness of” as his sixth most frequent thought ever, didn't have its...

(The entire section is 718 words.)

Eric Korn (review date 5 April 1996)

SOURCE: Korn, Eric. “A Clippings Job.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4853 (5 April 1996): 22.

[In the following review, Korn offers a generally positive assessment of The Size of Thoughts, though criticizes the inclusion of several unworthy pieces in the volume.]

After the entertaining phonoerotic Vox and the deplorable Fermata (which gave a new, literalist interpretation to the cry, “Stop the world, I want to get off”), Nicholson Baker, to the relief of the rest of us, has turned his hand elsewhere. He is a man of enormous lexical talent, a talent recently deployed largely to describe underwear; and so clinging is literary repute or...

(The entire section is 1164 words.)

Jim Krusoe (review date 5 May 1996)

SOURCE: Krusoe, Jim. “Head Case.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (5 May 1996): 1, 10.

[In the following review, Krusoe praises The Size of Thoughts, complimenting the obsessive detail and evolution of style presented in the essays.]

I suppose that the two things I've always resented most about sports are exactly the two things most people watch them for: that desire to know the final score and the moment (the one when I'm invariably looking somewhere else) that proves to be decisive. That's why I like six-day bike racing. Not only is the end so far off that I can go out to breakfast (several times, in fact) before it arrives, but when I miss a “decisive...

(The entire section is 1106 words.)

Nicholson Baker and David Dodd (interview date 15 May 1996)

SOURCE: Baker, Nicholas, and David Dodd. “Requiem for the Discarded.” Library Journal 121, no. 9 (15 May 1996): 31-2.

[In the following interview, Baker discusses his controversial 1994 New Yorker essay “Discards,” in which he opposed the destruction of library card catalogs.]

Nicholson Baker's new book taps the author's uncanny ability to capture in prose those minute, seemingly insignificant aspects of our daily lives and thought processes and turn them into inspiring reflections. The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber is a collection of essays on topics ranging from the evolution of punctuation (in which he defends, for example, the...

(The entire section is 1826 words.)

Michael Wood (review date 20 June 1996)

SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “Up to the Minutiae.” New York Review of Books 43, no. 8 (20 June 1996): 65-6.

[In the following review, Wood examines the variety of essays in The Size of Thoughts, commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of various pieces. Wood praises the humor and passion evident in several essays, focusing on “Discards” and “Lumber” in particular.]

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...

(The entire section is 3423 words.)

Irving Malin (review date fall 1996)

SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of The Size of Thoughts, by Nicholson Baker. Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, no. 3 (fall 1996): 201.

[In the following review, Malin offers a positive assessment of The Size of Thoughts, commenting on the deeper themes within the collection and Baker's other works such as Vox and The Fermata.]

I remember my first reading of The Mezzanine, I was puzzled by the obsessive attention to detail (especially in the footnotes). Baker used much space for references to Marcus Aurelius and mall design. Why did he consciously cultivate the details? Was he linking consciousness to detail? Was he, in effect, writing...

(The entire section is 319 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 10 May 1998)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (10 May 1998): 2.

[In the following review, Eder criticizes The Everlasting Story of Nory, asserting that the book fails in its attempt to depict the perspective and language of a nine-year-old girl.]

As a child late in the last century, Daisy Ashford assumed a grown-up's voice—or her notion of one—to write the romance of Ethel Montacue and her admirer, Mr. Salteena. In its comic misapprehensions of tone, likelihood and spelling, “The Young Visiters,” unearthed years later by J. M. Barrie, became a minor English classic.

Nicholson Baker has reversed the...

(The entire section is 1139 words.)

Caroline Moore (review date 13 June 1998)

SOURCE: Moore, Caroline. “Sugar and Spice.” Spectator 280, no. 8862 (13 June 1998): 38.

[In the following review, Moore presents a negative assessment of The Everlasting Story of Nory, noting that the work is overly cute and sweet.]

You need a strong stomach to be a critic of modern novels, which collectively give the impression of a world in which children who have not been sexually abused by their near relations are pretty thin on the ground. I thought I had supped full of horrors, but nothing quite prepared me for the stomach-churning qualities of Nicholson Baker's latest novel [The Everlasting Story of Nory]. Professional duty got me through it,...

(The entire section is 704 words.)

Ron Charles (review date 25 June 1998)

SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “Giraffes, Children, and Stories.” Christian Science Monitor (25 June 1998): B7, B11.

[In the following review, Charles praises The Everlasting Story of Nory, lauding its ability to evoke the innocent, simple, and “miraculous” world of childhood.]

My six-year-old daughter recently asked me about the giraffe in our house.

“What giraffe?” I asked.

“That giraffe you and Mom felt coming down the stairs.”

“That was a draft, some cold air, you know, a breeze.”

She nodded skeptically, as though she'd stumbled upon an exotic smuggling ring. For...

(The entire section is 610 words.)

Eric Lorberer (review date fall 1998)

SOURCE: Lorberer, Eric. Review of The Everlasting Story of Nory, by Nicholson Baker. Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 3 (fall 1998): 242-43.

[In the following review, Lorberer applauds The Everlasting Story of Nory for its vivid portrayal of the thoughts and internal feelings of Nory, its nine-year-old protagonist.]

Nicholson Baker, well-known for his phone-sex novel Vox and his voyeuristic fantasy The Fermata, here attempts what in some ways might be his most risky book yet. The Everlasting Story of Nory depicts a year in the life of a nine-year-old American girl attending school in England; its quiet, pastoral tone is more...

(The entire section is 330 words.)

Arthur Saltzman (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Saltzman, Arthur. “A Columbus of the Near-at-Hand.” In Understanding Nicholson Baker, pp. 1-14. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Saltzman provides an overview of Baker's life, writings, literary style and thematic concerns, and critical reception.]

Nicholson Baker has established himself as contemporary fiction's principal detective and dissector of epics that await the reader at close range. Thanks to Baker's extraordinary attention to ordinary objects and processes, restroom paper towels and computer paper perforations have been accorded the same descriptive indulgence as Achilles' shield; tying shoes and...

(The entire section is 3854 words.)

Leonard Kniffel (essay date April 2001)

SOURCE: Kniffel, Leonard. “Nicholson Baker Returns in Prose and Prank.” American Libraries 32, no. 4 (April 2001): 28-9.

[In the following essay, Kniffel discusses Double Fold and Baker's efforts to preserve historical newspaper collections from destruction.]

Author and activist Nicholson Baker has again taken aim at library preservation practices—twice. Once for real, in a new book, and once as the butt of a hoax perpetrated by someone he calls “a misguided supporter.”

Baker's new book, Double Fold, published this month by Random House, is a scathing assessment of the state of newspaper and book preservation. He is incensed by...

(The entire section is 877 words.)

Robert Darnton (review date 26 April 2001)

SOURCE: Darnton, Robert. “The Great Book Massacre.” New York Review of Books 48, no. 7 (26 April 2001): 16-19.

[In the following review, Darnton offers a generally favorable assessment of Double Fold, though finds shortcomings in Baker's rhetorical exaggerations and his view of historical sources.]


When journalists discuss their craft, they invoke contradictory clichés: “Today's newspaper is the first draft of history,” and “Nothing is more dead than yesterday's newspaper.” Both in a way are true. News feeds history with facts, yet most of it is forgotten. Suppose newspapers disappeared from libraries: Would history...

(The entire section is 6156 words.)

Alexander Star (review date 28 May 2001)

SOURCE: Star, Alexander. “The Paper Pusher.” New Republic (28 May 2001): 38-41.

[In the following review, Star compliments Double Fold, but finds flaws in Baker's narrow defense of print artifacts and his failure to consider content value as a criterion for preservation.]

In the opening pages of The Mezzanine, his first novel, Nicholson Baker speculates that the world changed suddenly sometime around 1970. He is referring to the unfortunate moment when “all the major straw vendors switched from paper to plastic straws, and we entered that uncomfortable era of the floating straw.” How did this come about? Presumably the engineers had supposed that...

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Nicholson Baker and Andrew Richard Albanese (interview date 1 June 2001)

SOURCE: Baker, Nicholson, and Andrew Richard Albanese. “Double-Edged: Is Nicholson Baker a Friend of Libraries?” Library Journal 126, no. 10 (1 June 2001): 103-04.

[In the following interview, Baker discusses his arguments for book and newspaper preservation, as put forth in Double Fold, and the controversy among librarians in response to his condemnation of library policies that promote the destruction of print collections.]

Since its publication in April 2001, Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper has generated a hailstorm of controversy in the library community. It is somewhat ironic then that Baker, sitting in a New...

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Further Reading


Birkerts, Sven. “Details.” New York Times Book Review (14 April 1996): 12.

Birkerts praises The Size of Thoughts, extolling Baker's writing abilities, wit, and verbal skill.

Cavanaugh, Tim. “Paper Tigers.” Reason 33, no. 4 (August-September 2001): 78-9.

Cavanaugh offers a negative assessment of Double Fold.

Fialkoff, Francine. “Baker's Book Is Half-Baked.” Library Journal (15 May 2001): 102.

Fialkoff, the editor of Library Journal, disagrees with Baker's arguments against the digitization of newspapers and periodicals in Double...

(The entire section is 496 words.)