Nicholson Baker. 567pp. Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
To put it mildly, in Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker has produced an amazing book. It was one of the most absorbing 400+ page books I have ever read.
The book is made up of hundreds, probably close to 1,000, short vignettes that trace the events leading up to World War II and its prosecution until the end of 1941 (which, for the U.S., marked our country’s entry into the War).
These vignettes are mostly simple, descriptive statements; only rarely is Baker’s voice apparent. An example of an editorial comment, though, may be found on page 452: A December 10, 1941, Gallup poll had shown that two-thirds of the American population would support the U.S. firebombing Japanese cities in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. “Ten percent—representing twelve million citizens—were wholly opposed. Twelve million people still held to Franklin Roosevelt’s basic principle of civilization: that no man should be punished for the deeds of another. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not one of them.”
As should be obvious (and reviewers have all taken pains to note), the reader should not mistake the objective tone of Baker’s reportage for a merely descriptive intent on his part. Baker clearly has an agenda—though precisely what that agenda is remains for us to discern from the book’s contents. It has no introduction or commentary beyond a very brief “Afterword.” However, by what he includes and excludes, Baker tells a story filtered through his own lenses and reflecting his own concerns. Continue reading