Nicholson Baker
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Literary Arts

Nicholson Baker

Past Event: Monday, May 8, 1995

Nicholson Baker has said that his job is “to celebrate the over familiar.” The author of such works as The Mezzanine and Vox, Baker has demonstrated his talent for writing fascinating accounts of seemingly mundane or irrelevant details.

On his writing style Baker described, “The problem I seem to have is I want to describe something in a paragraph, and it turns out that I have more to say about that thing than a paragraph can accommodate. In The Mezzanine, I used the footnote as a way to encapsulate more stuff that the reader could take in at will. Footnotes are voluntary, you can drop down to them or not. I’ve been wrestling with this problem of too much to say for years. I think the sci-fi premise of The Fermata is another way of coming to grips with that problem. The hero can stop time and think about whatever it is he wants to think about for as long as he wants. In the same way that if I’m riding up an escalator in The Mezzanine, I can think about the handrail at length or something.

Baker also possesses the incredible ability of focusing in on short periods of time in such a way that he reveals them to be amazing glimpses of seemingly unimportant snippets of life. He has written on everything from phone sex, to the life of a nine-year old English girl, Nory, a character created from daily conversations with his own nine-year old daughter while living in England.

Born in 1957, Baker attended the Eastman School of Music for a year, but decided that music was not his true calling; he received his B.A. from Haverford College. He is on the editorial board of The American Scholar magazine and in 1997 received the Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for his work on behalf of the San Francisco Public Library. In 1999, he founded the American Newspaper Repository, a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to preserving original 19th- and 20th-century newspapers.

Nicholson Baker lives in Maine with his wife, and their two children.

Excerpt from Double Fold (2001)

The British Library’s newspaper collection occupies several buildings in Colindale, north of London, near a former Royal Air Force base that is now a museum of aviation. On October 20, 1940, a German airplane—possibly mistaking the library complex for an aircraft-manufacturing plant—dropped a bomb on it. Ten thousand volumes of Irish and English papers were destroyed; fifteen thousand more were damaged. Unscathed, however, was a very large foreign-newspaper collection, including many American titles: thousands of fifteen-pound brick-thick folios bound in marbled boards, their pages stamped in red with the British Museum’s crown-and-lion symbol of curatorial responsibility.

Bombs spared the American papers, but recent managerial policy has not—most were sold off in a blind auction in the fall of 1999. One of the library’s treasures was a seventy-year run, in about eight hundred volumes, of Joseph Pulitzer’s exuberantly polychromatic newspaper, the New York World. Pulitzer discovered that illustrations sold the news; in the 1890s, he began printing four-color Sunday supplements and splash-panel cartoons. The more maps, murder-scene diagrams, ultra-wide front-page political cartoons, fashion sketches, needlepoint patterns, children’s puzzles, and comics that Pulitzer published, the higher the World’s sales climbed; by the mid-nineties, its circulation was the largest of any paper in the country. William Randolph Hearst moved to New York in 1895 and copied Pulitzer’s innovations and poached his staff, and the war between the two men created modern privacy-probing, muckraking, glamour-smitten journalism. A million people a day once read Pulitzer’s World; now an original set is a good deal rarer than a Shakespeare First Folio or the Gutenberg Bible.

Selected Work
Double Fold (2001)
The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998)
The Size of Thoughts (1996)
The Fermata (1994)
Vox (1992)
U & I: A True Story (1991)
Room Temperature (1990)
The Mezzanine (1988)

The Paris Review: Interview with Nicholson Baker
Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (for The New York Times)