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Author presents WW II as “a senseless, horrible sequence of events”

Nicholson Baker talks with Lehigh students Tuesday at Linderman Library.

Human Smoke , as Lehigh professor John Pettegrew said in his introduction of author Nicholson Baker Monday night, is “a different book.”

Over the course of 471 pages, the bestselling nonfiction book, which has the subtitle “The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization,” chronicles the years leading up to the United States’ entry into World War II through a series of concisely worded vignettes, separated by white space, that were drawn from newspapers, diaries, public records, and other sources of the day.

But Baker, who spoke to about 50 students, faculty and staff in Whittaker Auditorium Monday night, said his original intent was to “write a book that had more of me in it, in which I would sort of say, ‘I, an amateur, a person who has not spent 20 years studying this infinite subject matter, am humbly going to confront something that is huge.’

“I wrote hundreds of pages. And then, my wife read it and said, ‘Take yourself out.’ And she was so right. This is so much bigger than that standard thing that happens to get written now, where it’s a personal saga. This is not a personal saga.”

The result is a book that “makes an argument, despite the fact that it is wholly non-fiction and without an explicit authorial voice,” Pettegrew said.

“A PBS knowledge of the war”

Baker, shown here making a point with students Tuesday, also discussed his latest book at Whittaker Auditorium Monday night.

Pettegrew, associate professor of history, and Seth Moglen, associate professor of English, began the session by engaging Baker in conversation about his work, before taking questions from the audience.

Students also had the opportunity to discuss Baker’s provocative book in more detail when he met on Tuesday afternoon in Linderman Library with two classes taught by Pettegrew and Moglen.

Students were quick to offer the themes that resonated with them as they pored through Baker’s work—the undertones of economics and profit in war, the implications of blockades on food to civilian populations, the dichotomy of good and bad, how a single person can push a single agenda, and the role of newspapers and the media in information gathering.

One student, who enjoyed the structure of Baker’s book—snippets of information culled from various sources and references interspersed between white space—commented, “This is how we get information today. It’s information in bits and you have to put the story together.”

Baker acknowledged that this was very much how people received their information during the war. “You had to put information together on the fly,” he said. “This is truer to the experience of history.”

When he began working on the book, Baker said, he had only “a PBS knowledge of the war.”

“My agenda was only a desire to have history be something that you suffer through a little,” said Baker. “You say ‘God that hurts.’ That feeling is important for me to capture.”

With painstaking detail, Baker chronicles how Winston Churchill, who Baker called “a brilliantly eloquent man and also a maniac” during Monday night's discussion, confronted the rising Nazi threat with blockades that cut off food supplies to Germany and massive aerial bombings of civilian populations.

“You can start by saying, here is this cyst of evil, the Hitlerian regime,” Baker told the Whittaker Auditorium crowd Monday. “And I hoped to chronicle how early the fantasy of Jewish extermination really is. And the question really is: What takes a fantasy and turns it into something that is not something subscribed to by a bunch of fanatics, but something that a whole country embraces? What sort of trauma makes that possible?

“It seems to me, in the evidence that I came up with in working on the book, that at least it’s worth asking whether the kinds of trauma that come about by having air raid sirens go off every night and things drop on your head every night are the things that actually bring out and strengthen the fantasy. And if that’s so, and the West has trapped a certain group of people—the Jews—in Germany, is that possibly a state of affairs that’s going to result in the absolute worst outcome?”

“A big handful of broken glass”

Lehigh professors John Pettegrew, left, and Seth Moglen joined Baker in leading Tuesday afternoon's discussion.

Baker, however, took exception to those who have criticized the book for supposedly drawing a “moral equivalency” between the way the Allies conducted the war and the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

“I hope that the book is doing something that is entirely contrary to the idea of moral equivalency, which is that history is made up of these fragmentary moments of decision, moments where people can make a decision that we will think of in hindsight as a good, noble, historic, well-thought-out decision, or a mistake, a mean, petty decision or an awful, horrifying, brutal decision,” Baker said. “And we have to look at it as a thing connected to a particular day.”

For that reason, each vignette in the book is dated as specifically as possible, usually with the simple declaration: “It was …” followed by the date. His intent in separating each vignette by white space was to allow “the spaces between things to have some kind of charged emptiness,” he said.

“Basically, what I was trying to do was quote artfully,” Baker said. “I was trying to behave the way a documentary filmmaker would, except that it was a book. So I would quote somebody and try, as well as I could, to encapsulate the force of the startling nature of what he or she was saying in two or three lines, and then go on to the next thing … Whatever artfulness, or lack of artfulness, I’m capable of—and it varies day to day, believe me—I just didn’t think it was up to this task.”

Baker also defended his book against criticism that the vignettes were chosen solely to support his pacifist leanings.

“I’m a popular historian or an amateur historian,” Baker said. “But I think there’s some value to that because what I’m trying to do is say, here is this thing that we think of as a giant arch. And I’m going to show you many little arches. I’m going to break it up and I’m going to hand it back to you as a big handful of broken glass. And you’re going to have to hold that.

“I don’t think that I do actually make everything fit some kind of grand scheme because it doesn’t make sense to me either. This is a senseless, horrible sequence of events. And nobody comes out particularly well.”

Baker culled through documents in the Library of Congress, borrowed some 300 books from the University of New Hampshire, and unearthed surprising news accounts “hiding in plain sight” in the 6,000 volumes of bound American newspapers—more than 20 tons’ worth—that Baker and his wife bought at auction from the British Library (and later donated to Duke University).

“I don’t mean to upset or entirely revise the perceived notion of what happened,” Baker said. “Just simply to add some complicating, enriching confusion.”

Story by Jack Croft and Tricia Long

Posted on Tuesday, November 11, 2008

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