Nicholson Baker Criticism - Essay

Michael Harris (review date 1 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 “with a little concentration one's whole life could be reconstructed from any single 20-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected.” He then proceeds to prove it.

Without leaving his rocking chair, Mike shuttles back and forth between his past as a precocious kid and college-dorm Romeo and his present as an awed new parent. His mode of travel is the long, intricate sentence, which he views as indispensable for the “careful interpretation and weighing” of “novelties of social and technological life.” His fuel consists of details so fine, and so finely observed (whether of nose-picking or model airplanes, the taste of Bic pens or the mutual sounding-out talk of newlyweds, the clucking noises the Bug makes or the shape of a spoonful of peanut butter, which leads him to imagine impishly what his wife, when pregnant, would have looked like in a wind tunnel), that they give off propulsive heat and spurt the reader along with delicious little jolts of recognition.

True, Mike's life is a sheltered one, and Baker is blatantly showing off (like a teen-ager solving quadratic equations while winning a bubble-gum-blowing contest). Room Temperature has a smug, tour de force-y quality to it. But it also includes some of the tenderest, most delicate interaction between husband and wife, adult and infant, in modern fiction, demonstrating what John Updike, no mean observer himself, meant when he wrote of artists who imitate God. “Details are the giant's fingers. He seizes the stick and strips the bark and shows, burning beneath, the moist white wood of joy.”

Julian Loose (review date 19 April 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Galen Strawson (review date 19 April 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Richard Eder (review date 12 May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Scammell (review date 25 May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Cyra McFadden (review date 9 February 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Kemp (review date 6 March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Buchan (review date 14 March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Julian Loose (review date 26 March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Towers (review date 9 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William H. Pritchard (review date autumn 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ross Chambers (essay date winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.]


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Joanne Trestail (review date 6 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Richard Eder (review date 13 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Trev Broughton (review date 18 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tim Parks (review date 19 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Adam Mars-Jones (review date 24 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Cathleen Schine (review date 7 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Francis Spufford (review date 22 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Eric Korn (review date 5 April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jim Krusoe (review date 5 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Wood (review date 20 June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Irving Malin (review date fall 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Eder (review date 10 May 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Caroline Moore (review date 13 June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Ron Charles (review date 25 June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Eric Lorberer (review date fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Arthur Saltzman (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Leonard Kniffel (essay date April 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Darnton (review date 26 April 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alexander Star (review date 28 May 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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