Jan. 7, 2010
Looking at Pictures to Be Put Away
Who was this girl
In her white night gown
Clutching a pair of jeans
On a foggy redwood deck.
She looks up at me tender,
What will we remember
Bodies thick with food and lovers
After twenty years.
It's the birthday of a man who said, "When I first wanted to be a writer, I learned to write prose by reading poetry": Nicholson Baker, (books by this author) born in New York City (1957). He's the author of the new novel The Anthologist (2009), about a poet struggling to write the introduction to a poetry anthology.
After some guys beat him up in grade school, Baker's parents sent him to a free experimental school in Rochester called the School Without Walls, where the students were encouraged to learn about whatever excited them, and then given bus tokens to spend the day around town pursuing their interests.
He mostly spent these school days at home watching sitcoms and playing the bassoon and thinking he was going to be a musician. He even started at a music conservatory for college, but one day after he found his mother at home reading, laughing out loud to herself at an essay John Updike had written about golf for The New York Times Book Review, Baker decided he wanted to be a writer. He said: "Nothing is more impressive than the sight of a complex person suddenly ripping out a laugh over some words in a serious book or periodical. ... Here was Updike making people happy. That was obviously something to be proud of."
He worked some odd jobs and tried to write, but he was having a hard time coming up with a plot that satisfied him. He decided to take six months off of paid work in order to sit and write. And during that time, he wrote his first book, The Mezzanine (1988), which is practically devoid of plot. The entire novel takes place over the course of an office worker's lunch hour, as he rides an escalator up to the mezzanine level of his building. It's a stream-of-consciousness-style record of his thoughts — about shoelaces, the evolution of milk cartons, vending machines, popcorn, plastic straws and classic corporate paper towel dispensers — punctuated with some really long footnotes.
He's written a fictional account about phone sex, and another novel about naked women. And he's written several works of nonfiction, including about his love of John Updike, a book entitled U and I: A True Story (1991).
He's a frequent contributor to The New Yorker magazine. For a while, Baker was on a mission to save old newspapers — a decade ago, he cashed out his retirement savings to buy some historic American newspapers that the British Library was getting rid of by auction, and he established a nonprofit corporation called the American Newspaper Repository. Its purpose is to rescue old newspapers from being destroyed by libraries, which are switching some of their collections to microfilm. Baker even wrote an impassioned nonfiction book called Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001).
But Baker is far from a Luddite, and he's actually a huge fan of Wikipedia. A year and a half ago (April 2008), he wrote a column for The Guardian entitled "How I fell in love with Wikipedia." It begins: "Wikipedia is just an incredible thing. It is fact-encirclingly huge, and it is idiosyncratic, careful, messy, funny, shocking, and full of simmering controversies — and it is free, and it is fast. In a few seconds you can look up, for instance, "Diogenes of Sinope," or "turnip," or "Crazy Eddie," or "quadratic formula," and you will have knowledge you did not have before. It is like some vast aerial city with people walking briskly to and fro on catwalks, carrying picnic baskets full of nutritious snacks."
It's the birthday of Canadian literary critic Hugh Kenner, (books by this author) born in Ontario (1923). His seminal masterpiece, The Pound Era, was published in 1971. It took two decades to research. Kenner was the author of dozens of books, including the landmark Dublin's Joyce (1956), Joyce's Voices (1978), and a critical work on Ulysses (1980).
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®