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