The Size of Thoughts

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Nicholson Baker is the author of several highly original novels, such as Vox, his 1992 exploration of phone sex, and The Fermata (1994), a work about the nature of time and masturbation. Lest readers of his collection of essays think he has abandoned his preoccupation with sexual matters, The Size of Thoughts includes “Leading with the Grumper,” Baker’s review of volume 1 of J. E. Lighter’s edition of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994). Needless to say, “Leading with the Grumper” does not fail to provide numerous examples of those entries labeled as “usu. considered vulgar.” The Size of Thoughts concludes with a 142-page meditation on the word “lumber” inspired by Baker’s ramblings through the English Poetry Full-Text Database, released on CD-ROM in 1994. Although “Lumber” is too long and repetitive, it is far more typical of the essays that make up The Size of Thoughts.

The collection is divided into six sections: “Thought,” “Machinery,” “Reading,” “Mixed,” “Library Science,” and “Lumber” (this last consisting solely of the seven-part essay “Lumber”). Fourteen of the eighteen essays that make up the volume have previously appeared in periodicals such as The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. The weaker pieces—three of the five components of “Mixed,” as well as the whole of “Lumber”—are published here for the first time. Even so slight a piece as “Recipe” offers up some tasty Baker fare. Asked by the Monroe, Michigan, County Library System to supply a recipe for its proposed collection, Baker provides one for chocolate sauce which concludes:

Refrigerate the unused sauce right in the original saucepan, covered with tinfoil, with the spoon resting in it; that way, when you put it back on the heat-source, you’ll be able to brandish the whole solidified disk of chocolate merely by lifting the spoon. It looks like a metal detector.

This excerpt gives a flavor of the sort of offbeat observations and quirky mental connections that characterize all of Baker’s writing and which are the true subject of The Size of Thoughts. The illustration on the book’s cover—a brown fedora set in an X-Y axis—gives a hint of what is inside. Typically, authors have no control over the dust jackets that grace their books, but it is hard in this case to believe that Baker did not—or, at a minimum, that the jacket designer was not an ardent Baker fan. The design consists of a witty, unexpected conceit: The Size of Thoughts, a potentially weighty title, refers not to the measure of the man, but to a possibly empty hat.

Although nothing is beneath Baker’s notice—including the computer collection of typographical detritus that is the subject of the piece “Mlack”—not all of the mental gymnastics Baker performs in his essay collection consist of “small thoughts . . . happy to run around in their colorful swimwear under the brutalist of noons,” as the titular essay describes less than weighty matters. “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 our rush to computerize. “Discards,” in fact, might be the most substantial essay in the collection, providing considerable insight into, if not the size of thoughts, then the way the human brain works. Although Baker does not say so explicitly, his rhapsodizing about the efficiency and sensory fulfillment of manually riffling through a drawer full of catalog cards makes clear the superiority of this digital information retrieval technique over current digital storage methods. Once the computer has replaced the card catalog, Baker indicates, not only will the feel of this experience—together with a great deal of ancillary information that does not lend itself to digital translation—be lost, so will the mind’s truest analog. While computers supposedly simulate human thought processes, there is something ineffable about the play between hand and eye over physical objects that more closely approximates the left brain- right brain nexus. Keystrokes do not begin to approach the complementariness of manual and mental dexterity; when people allow the computer to manipulate the data for them, then results are, on every level, less than satisfying. Databases, which have been edited “not by minds, but by iterative software...

(The entire section is 1869 words.)