The Nicholson Baker Course

When I starting reading Nicholson Baker, so as to write my homage, B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, I quickly grew concerned, because Baker’s many writerly interests got all jumbled up in my mind. It’s just this kind of jumble that triggers the taxonomical reflex in teachers of writing and literature—jumbles must be ordered, organized into units of study—and I did not stop being concerned until I realized that embracing this sense of jumbledness, books and ideas seeming to clamber all over one another, would produce the best possible portrait of Baker’s mind. I offer the following series of categories on the theory that if Baker’s run of books tells the story of how he untangled his own jumble, like a man painstakingly unknotting a giant wad of Christmas lights, then a class devoted to him should do less by way of assisting with the straightening and hanging of the wire, and more by way of un-decorating the tree and re-wadding the string into its original, brain-shaped spool.

THE MINUTIAE BOOKS: The Mezzanine (1988), Room Temperature (1990), and A Box of Matches (2003)

Several things connect Baker’s three early “minutiae” books. All three are narrated by a highly literary man who works a distinctly nonliterary job. Each narrator closely resembles Baker himself, and each ascribes great importance to the often-overlooked textures of daily life (to paraphrase Howie in The Mezzanine). And each novel is preoccupied with light. Baker himself has noted that the fluorescent light of corporate offices characterizes The Mezzanine, whereas Room Temperature is filled with sunlight. A Box of Matches oscillates between firelight and moonlight. A Box of Matches completes a trilogy of a kind, but it’s distinct from the other minutiae books in a few interesting ways. The Mezzanine and Room Temperature are exercises in compressed time—one is the story of a single escalator ride, the other of a twenty-minute infant feeding—and were published within two years of each other. A Box of Matches appeared thirteen years later, and works within a wholly different constraint: brief daily vignettes, produced while its narrator enjoys an early-morning fire in a cozy living room. What distinguishes the minutiae books most clearly from one another is tone. The Mezzanine and Room Temperature exhibit a young writer’s giddy enthusiasm with language, whereas A Box of Matches is flatter, the sentences seeming to embody the more battered sensibility Baker had adopted by by this point in his career. In this way, the minutiae books hint at how a writer’s core ideas linger despite the traumatic tacks a publishing life may take.

THE SEX BOOKS: Vox (1992), The Fermata (1994), and House of Holes: A Book of Raunch (2011)

The dates of Baker’s infamous sex novels—notably, another trilogy—reveal a pattern: two early books published back to back, followed by another, many years later—seventeen, in this case. The subject matter may remain consistent in the sex novels, but their strategies vary wildly. Vox is an all-dialogue book; The Fermata is the fictional autobiography of a would-be pornographer who can stop time, Arno Strine; and House of Holes reads like the pornography that Arno might have produced. Each of Baker’s sex novels is an ardent defense of reading—emphasis on ardent—and if you attempt to teach the sex books, I highly recommend making a list of classroom-appropriate synonyms for Baker’s exuberantly raunchy wordplay, which includes terms such as “spunkspewer” and locales such as “the Avenue of Men Who Need to Suck Twat Every Day.”

THE UPDIKE BOOK: U and I: A True Story (1991)

My own Baker fascination stemmed from U and I, which, even before I read it, struck me as having been a particularly important book. For almost a quarter of a century now, many wonderful writers have been reading and loving U and I. For others, however, it’s completely unreadable. One good reason to go ahead and teach it is that it’s a good example of a book that defied the concerted efforts of early reviewers to make sure no one even picked it up. Publishers Weekly called U and I an “alternately self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing essay.” Library Journal claimed the book “reveal[ed] little about Updike but overmuch about Baker.” And Kirkus Reviews weighed in with this bit of snark: “Surely nearly 200 pages of dreams, digressions, puns, self-ridicule, and self-congratulation would please the world, or Updike, or someone.… I.O.U. a better book.”

Well, I liked it just fine. And so did Updike, actually.

THE LIBRARY BOOKS: The Size of Thoughts (1996), Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001), Checkpoint (2004), Human Smoke (2008)

In the mid-’90s, Baker undertook, not altogether willingly, an epic quest. His journey leap-frogged from casual interest in the history of card catalogs (“Discards,” first published in The New Yorker), to publicly professed pacifism at any cost, to the composition and performance of songs about drones on YouTube, and to a novel about assassinating George W. Bush (see below). The quest required him to put his entire livelihood at risk, in 1999, when he founded the American Newspaper Repository, the sole mission of which was the preservation of twenty to thirty tons of rare first-run newspapers, all of which are now archived at Duke University. The Baker Library Works span many books, starting with Baker’s two essay collections, The Size of Thoughts and The Way the World Works, and moving into Double Fold, which tells the tragic story of library downsizing, and shifting from there into a range of lingering Cold War effects on modern politics (it’s a long story). The Library Works are each wonderful in their own way, and jumbled together they amount to Baker’s White Whale.

THE DIALOGUE BOOKS: Vox (1992) and Checkpoint (2004)

That a writer’s style and strategy may linger even as his or her subject matter shifts is perfectly demonstrated by an unlikely pairing: the happy, exuberant sex dialogue Vox, a conflict-free love story masquerading as a phone-sex conversation, and Checkpoint, the transcript of two men debating modern life, death, and whether one of the two conversationalists should assassinate the president. One book flirts with the obscene; the other flirts with the first amendment. Vox and Checkpoint make for an absolutely fascinating pedagogical unit—they’re perfect for the evergreen “compare and contrast” essay assignment.

THE PAUL CHOWDER CHRONICLES: The Anthologist (2009) and Traveling Sprinkler (2013)

Baker’s latest alter-ego is Paul Chowder, narrator of two meandering, plot-defying works. Though a published poet and a former Guggenheim fellow, Chowder is nevertheless embittered and fearful that there is something wrong with the state of modern poetry (he laments the death of rhyme). Chowder harbors ill feelings about his teaching career; he worries that teaching literature to undergraduates has ruined books for him. He has a wry and acerbic voice that is easy to identify with, and difficult not to emulate. A great reason to teach either or both of the Chowder books is that Chowder, a teacher, comes off as a passionate, human presence, albeit tired and spent, and teaching either of the books could well result in students coming to recognize that their professors are distinct human beings, as full of passion and regret as the texts they teach. And they, like Chowder, nurture a faint and despondent hope that literature will continue to matter despite the many forces, adroitly chronicled by Nicholson Baker for decades, that threaten it.

J.C. Hallman is the author of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Around (Simon and Schuster, 2015).