Winston Churchill seldom, if ever, struggled with a lack of self-confidence. When he was in his early thirties he remarked: “We are all worms. But I do believe I am a glowworm.”
So years later when he said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it,” I’m sure he believed that his words would be the gold standard by which other writings on his chosen subjects would be judged. And when it came to writing history, his mammoth treatments of the two world wars during the first half of the twentieth century bear witness to his literary ambition and talent.
But as with most supremely confident people, they tend to underestimate peers and those who will come later.
Remember that old Steve Allen show “Meeting of the Minds” – where he’d put random characters from history at a table to talk? Well, I’d love to see something similar, but just one on one, between Sir Winston Spencer Churchill, and a guy named Nicholson Baker.
Baker’s previous claims to literary fame involved novels dealing with such disturbing matters as phone-sex (“VOX”) and, more recently, a book about the merits of assassinating George W. Bush (really – it’s called “CHECKPOINT”). I’m very happy to announce herein that among the accomplishments of my life is the great sense of fulfillment I find in the knowledge that I have never read those books.
But I did find myself reading Mr. Baker’s recent foray into quasi-nonfiction – a book entitled: “HUMAN SMOKE: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.” I was intrigued by the title for two reasons. First, I enjoy reading anything about that period and those events. And I felt bad that I’ve lived my life thus far clueless about the fact that civilization apparently ended before I was born.
That made me sad and sort of curious. In fact, as I read the book I became, in the words of a young girl named Alice, “curiouser and curiouser.” If important works of history are like mines - rich with detail – then Baker’s book is more like Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole.
This 576 page journey through the looking glass is actually very readable. It’s a series of approximately one thousand anecdotes drawn from newspapers (Baker is apparently a collector of old newspapers), diaries, letters, and contemporary works from the period leading up to, and into, the Second World War. There’s no commentary from Nicholson Baker – he makes his point via the way he pastes it all together.
Think of a quilt made of old newspapers. A really ugly old quilt – one that smells, has stains on it, and you wouldn’t use it on the coldest night.
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