The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber [NOOK Book]


The Size of Thoughts, a collection of essays that have appeared in the New Yorker and other publications, includes one never-before-published piece on the world of electronics. The essays celebrate the joy--and exquisite details--of everything from library card catalogs and reading aloud to the significance of wine stains on a tablecloth.

Baker turns any subject, from feeding a child to phone sex, into literature with a style that is ...
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The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber

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The Size of Thoughts, a collection of essays that have appeared in the New Yorker and other publications, includes one never-before-published piece on the world of electronics. The essays celebrate the joy--and exquisite details--of everything from library card catalogs and reading aloud to the significance of wine stains on a tablecloth.

Baker turns any subject, from feeding a child to phone sex, into literature with a style that is sparklingly original, frequently beautiful, and always thought-provoking. The Size of Thoughts, through its varied forays into the realms of the overlooked, the underfunded, and the wrongfully scrapped, is a funny book by one of the most distinctive stylists and thinkers of out time.
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Editorial Reviews

Sue Zesiger

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.)
Library Journal
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.
Janet St. John
In writing the essay "Rarity," Baker probably did not realize he had himself created something rare, contributing to the ever-changing, quickly embraced attitudes and adoptions of modern life. More than a delightful sampling by a trendy, acclaimed, and well-published writer, these essays are the fruits of a bountiful imagination. From nail clippers to model airplanes to the unacknowledged platter-style film projector to the size of thoughts, nothing is off limits and everything is interesting to Baker. His curiosity, keen wit, and search for truth appear refreshingly sincere, and his enthusiasm for the overlooked aspects of our world and daily lives is not merely an obsession with minutia but a zealous, childlike attention to all that can be examined; that quality alone is nearly contagious. Clearly well read, Baker's language and style pay homage to early essayists but remain modern by melding humor and sensitive perception in original ways. Although a few pieces stand out as filler, meant to boost the page count (e.g., "Wedding," "Mlack," "Recipe" ), the overall quality of the pieces is exceptionally high--an outstanding collection!
Kirkus Reviews
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 subject—such as model airplanes, nail clippers, punctuation marks, slang terminology, or typos—the 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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307807519
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/24/2011
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 1,066,866
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Nicholson Baker
Nicholson Baker was born in 1957 and attended the Eastman School of Music and Haverford College.  He is the author of four novels--The Mezzanine, Room Temperature, Vox, and The Fermata--and one work of non-fiction, U and I.  His essays have appeared in the New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Review of Books, Esquire, and The Best American Essays.  He is married with two children.


An elegant writer who has taken stream of consciousness to dizzying postmodern heights, Nicholson Baker has produced a body of work that is eccentric, inventive, and extremely difficult to categorize. In his virtually plotless novels, characters ruminate on the minutest details of everyday life and lose themselves in memories of Proustian intensity. His nonfiction is equally unconventional, filled with meticulously researched minutiae and passionate polemics on topics of great personal interest -- perhaps only to himself.

Baker's quirky brilliance was evident early on in several convoluted short stories that appeared in The New Yorker and Atlantic. But he hit his own idiosyncratic stride with his 1998 debut novel. Essentially one long, loopy digression riddled with footnotes nearly as long as the narrative, The Mezzanine traces a young man's meandering thoughts during a brief escalator ride from the ground floor to the mezzanine of the office building where he works. The "action," such as it is, takes scant minutes, but it's time enough to lay bare the protagonist's entire inner life. In his review for The New York Times, Robert Plunket singled out for commendation "...the razor-sharp insight and droll humor with which Mr. Baker illuminates the unseen world."

In other novels, Baker has taken us inside the heads of many characters: a young father bottle-feeding his infant daughter (Room Temperature); a middle-aged man whose early-morning ritual begins with lighting a fire (A Box of Matches); a man who stops time in order to fondle and exploit unsuspecting women (Fermata); two people a continent apart who indulge in graphic sexual fantasies over the telephone (Vox). (Fermata and Vox were widely criticized as "literary pornography." Vox created additional buzz, when it was revealed that Monica Lewinsky had given a copy to President Bill Clinton.)

Although Baker can never be accused of dispassion, the peculiarity of his nonfiction has led to mixed reviews. In lengthy essays and articles and wildly discursive books, he has paid extravagant tribute to his literary hero John Updike (U and I: A True Story), decried the destruction of library card catalogs (an essay in The Size of Thoughts), led a crusade to preserve and archive entire collections of American newspapers (Double Fold), and challenged the traditional view of World War II as "inevitable" (Human Smoke).

Baker's brand of erudite obsession may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is easy for literate readers to fall in love with his glittering prose. He is, above all else, a lover of language; and in his deft and capable hands, even the most mundane objects and events spring to glorious, full-bodied life. Summing up the singular, seductive charms of Baker's writing, Salon critic Laura Miller may have said it best: "...dazzling descriptive powers married to a passionate enthusiasm for the neglected flotsam and jetsam of everyday life."

Good To Know

A two-week writing seminar with Donald Barthelme at the University of California jump-started Baker's writing career.

His great-grandfather Ray Stannard Baker served as press secretary to president Woodrow Wilson and won a Pulitzer prize for his biography of Wilson.

Baker's first area of interest was music, rather than literature. A talented bassoonist, he attended Eastman School of Music with an eye to becoming a classical composer. Midway through his first year, he changed his major to English. He transferred to Haverfod College in Philadelphia, graduating in 1980.

One of Baker's most passionate concerns is preserving complete runs of newspapers as a valuable record of American history. To that end, he founded the American Newspaper Repository in 1999, when he learned the British Library was selling off or trashing its bound volumes of post-1870 newspapers.

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    1. Date of Birth:
    2. Place of Birth:
      Rochester, NY
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, Haverford College, 1980

Table of Contents

Changes of Mind 3
The Size of Thoughts 10
Rarity 18
Model Airplanes 27
The Protector 36
Clip Art 51
Reading Aloud 63
The History of Punctuation 70
A Novel by Alan Hollinghurst 89
Leading with the Grumper 96
The Northern Pedestal 111
Wedding 115
Mlack 117
Recipe 119
Ice Storm 121
Discards 125
Books as Furniture 182
Lumber 207
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