Nicholson Baker has established in his previous books that he is a paradoxical writer: academic yet adolescent, fantastical yet exacting, graceful yet long-winded, self-obsessed yet sharply observant. His work demands not only a reader's full attention but also his indulgence; one must follow behind Baker's cart wheeling logic in the hope that it will all lead somewhere -- and amuse along the way. More often than not, he succeeds at both.
Given such a demanding style, it's hardly surprising that The Size of Thoughts, a collection of essays, some previously published, some new, is a mixed bag. The haute-horniness Baker coined in Vox and The Fermata is absent here, but the more subtle subtext of that mood -- a hyper intimacy with a subject, an endless ability to fantasize -- pervade The Size of Thoughts. Certain essays, particularly "Changes of Mind," "Rarity" and "Reading Aloud" show off Baker's ability to ensnare a complex concept, and with technically precise language, haul it into the light and study it from every angle.
Other essays fall short. In "Clip Art" and "Model Airplanes" Baker elevates the mundane through intellectual inquiry (he describes a drop of glue as having a "distilled, vodkal interior purity"), but so much clever wordplay eventually slows down the reader and begs the question "Why do I need to know this much about anything?"
"Lumber," the book's final section, proves once and for all, in Bakerian logic, just how much heft one word can be made to carry. Baker writes: "The mind has been called a lumber-room, and its contents or its printed products described as lumber. . ." From there, he explores the boundaries, in mind-bending detail (he uses everything from a CD-ROM compilation of the "English Poetry Full-Text Database" to John Wesley's letters), of one word and the process of thinking itself. This is Baker at his most scholarly, and some might argue, didactic. But there isn't another writer alive with Baker's zoom-lens capabilities, infinite attention span, devilish insight and tactile vocabulary. For anyone with a speck of curiosity -- and a little patience -- The Size of Thoughts is well worth lumbering through. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Novelist and essayist Baker (The Fermata) here collects his published essays of the past 14 years, which showcase his talent for generating social and literary punditry that is at once whimsical and profound. His musings on the merits of such mundane items as nail clippers and library card catalogues reveal subtlety of thought and a dazzling mastery of language. If a few of the earlier pieces are arcane, Baker's penchant for probing the metaphysical depths of the ostensibly quotidian generally yields lively and provocative insights about the significance of often-unnoticed threads in the fabric of modern life. "Lumber," the longest essay in the collection, is a charmingly vertiginous meditation on the literary history of the word lumber, a project that leads Baker through a convoluted but interesting textual maze in which he discovers the pleasures of forgotten literary works and finds a new perspective on the opuses of several major writers. Those who enjoy Baker's distinctive brand of intellectual mind games will find him in top form here. Author tour. (Apr.)
All but one of the essays in novelist Baker's (Fermata, LJ 1/94) collection have previously appeared in publications like the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and Esquire between 1982 and 1995. Their subjects range from changing one's mind and model airplanes to punctuation and the books that appear in the pictures of mail-order catalogs. All the essays are witty, intelligent, thought-provoking, and a joy to read. A previously unpublished essay, "Lumber," which comprises 40 percent of the book, discusses the meaning of the word lumber and traces its use in English literature. It is an example of literary scholarship at its best: painstakingly thorough and fun to read. Many librarians will not like "Discards," in which Baker questions the wisdom of destroying library cards and describes the frustration of subject searches in computer catalogs, but all librarians should read it. Highly recommended.-Judy Mimken, Boise P.L., Id.
Showing off Baker's Sears catalog eclecticism and word-playfulness, this collection is congenial kin to his thoughtful, fiddly novels The Mezzanine and Room Temperature rather than the garrulously oversexed Vox.
These essays and other "lumber" (in its English sense) show off Baker's ideas of scale and subject matter, loosely categorized under rubrics the likes of "Thought," "Machinery," and "Library Science." In Baker's fastidiously discursive approach, the more obscure or minute the subjectsuch as model airplanes, nail clippers, punctuation marks, slang terminology, or typosthe longer and deeper he goes. His entertaining piece on the movie projector focuses on the transition from reel-to-reel projectors to the modern oversized platter systems, then zooms in on the crucial Maltese cross, the tiny, remarkably precise moving part that drives both. In a lighter study he deciphers and itemizes the books used by upscale furniture companies as props in their mail-order catalogs. An article on the history of punctuation fixes such picayune marks as the ancient cryphia or the medieval pilcrow within the history of Western writing. The collection's two longest pieces reveal the tensions and complements of his antiquarianism and gadget-mania: respectively, cyberspace's on-line library catalogs and the etymology and literary history of the word lumber. In the former, Baker sometimes loses his perspective in the debate over card catalogs versus Boolean-search-driven databases, jumbling nostalgia and practicality. The latter is, at 140 pages, an indulgent tour de force, and also a metaphor for eclectic learning, as he browses through Pope, Johnson, Webster, etc., for lumber's meanings.
Although Baker sometimes strains when he directly addresses his concerns and predilections, it takes a rare combination of wit and effort to seem this facile without actually being so.