Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Completed: The Size of Thoughts

Dear Jenny,

As I write this, it is December 30. I have two days left this year to finish my final book (Tim Gunn's Fashion Bible) and write up three other books from earlier this year (I guess you could say I am "Under the Gunn" Har har.) I was already under pressure, but my unexpected delay this week has definitely moved my situation from "tight" to "darned near impossible." But... I will try!

So! The Size of Thoughts is a collection of essays by Nicholson Baker. As you know, I am a big fan of his, The Mezzanine being one of my all-time favorite books (which you, of course, introduced me to) and I wrote about Double Fold on this very blog back in 2012.

The photo at the right is actually not the same copy I have, but the picture better illustrates how I felt about this book as I tried to read it quickly at the end of the year... not so fast with the Nicholson Baker reading.

It's a collection of essays very much in the true Baker explore-a-topic-ad-infinitum-with-extreme-verve-and verbosity style. Which I do enjoy, but some of these fell flat, I must admit. A lot of them felt like there wasn't really enough of the idea to fill a whole book, so here, let's just put these scratch pages into a collection together (in fact, one "essay" was actual discards from a novel he had written!) and really, for this style of writing to work (for me), it needs to be tightly, tightly edited, which much of this was not (or, at least, did not feel as though it was).

However, there were some good things in here and I am now going to randomly spew them at you... sorry about this, but I just gotta get it done.

Changing one's mind: In one essay, he explores the concept of changing our minds, he brings up two very interesting points:  One, that our minds often change through natural time progression and many times we don't even notice it (even when we feel strongly about something or are, shall we say, opinionated -- ahem. Not that this applies to either one of us at all. Heh.) Since reading that essay, I have thought a lot about this -- being mindful of mind-changing. Not that I am trying not to do it -- I think changing one's mind can be a very good thing -- more that I am trying to be less strident when stating my opinions. Who knows? My mind might very well change about that thing, even if I am passionate about it today.

And another way the mind changes is by comparison -- he gives a great, well-written example that basically boils down to the difference between the thinking, "Gosh, I'm old!" (say, for instance, when listening to an 11-year-old talk about music) vs. "Hey, I'm young!" (when, say, considering the impact of the flu on a 93-year-old) So we often "change our our minds," based on the situation at hand (he explained this far more eloquently, but I think you get the idea.)

Reading tip: In a surprisingly engrossing essay about the history of nail clippers (yes, nail clippers), he dropped a little nugget in a way that assumes that every reader is already doing this, but I did not and now do -- did you know you can mark passages in pBooks by dragging your fingernail on the page? Like a little underline etching? It works amazingly well. As you know, I use tabs on the sides of my pages to mark interesting passages, but this fingernail thing is a great way for me to mark what I am interested in on that page if/when I do not have a pencil! (Obviously, I cannot make notes, but underlining is helpful!) And the fingernail marking is less intrusive -- although I know you're having your own annotation odyssey right now...  this is a great technique when you really just can't write in the book.

Stephen King: Did you know that he and Stephen King apparently have a bit of a rift going? King once called Baker's book Vox a "meaningless little finger paring." Baker doesn't say anything directly negative about King, but the way he dissects this phrasing makes it pretty clear that he is not thrilled with the comment. So it might not be a "rift," but it kind of feels like one. Funny! (Authors are people too!)

Awesome writing: I'm not going to get too much into the context of this, but Baker was doing a book reading and he examines his feelings about that activity. I thought this line was so great:
"These formerly silent words unfolded themselves like lawn chairs in my mouth and emerged one by one wearing large Siberian hats of consonants and long erminous vowels and landed softly, without visible damage, here and there in the audience, and I thought Gosh, I'm reading aloud, from Chapter Seven! [63]
"Unfolded themselves like lawn chairs in my mouth" is just about the best possible example of why I love this man's writing.

Recipe! He writes an extremely detailed description of how to make a chocolate sauce that hardens over ice cream. The big finish is that you store it in the pan in the fridge, with the original spoon in the pan. So that "when you put it back on the heat source, you'll be able to brandish the whole solidified disk of chocolate merely by lifting the spoon. It looks like a metal detector." [120] HAHAHA! (Side note: The sauce sounds terrific. I need to make it sometime.)

Suzanne Vega: This is not at all a critical point in this book, but he talks about CD-ROM of poetry (ha! Remember those?) he is about to listen to and he refers to "removing the Suzanne Vega CD" that was in his CD drive. You know she's my favorite, so I absolutely loved that -- Nicholson Baker also likes Suzanne Vega! (And that was written in 1994, so long after the Luka hype!)

In conclusion: I will conclude this post with Baker's final line of the book: "All the pages I have flipped and copied and underlined will turn gray again and pull back into the shadows, and have no bearing on one another. Lumber becomes treasure only temporarily, through study, and then it lapses into lumber again. Books open, and then they close." [355]




  1. You know, for saying it wasn't his best, you sure did share some interesting stuff. A lot of that sounds great, especially the part about changing your mind. And I will definitely try the fingernail score as needed. That sounds pretty cool.

    What a fantastic last line! It sort of gives me chills, actually.

    Also, because I love a pun, I giggled at "under the gunn" so that was worthwhile for me. Heh.

  2. OMG! OMG! Nicholson Baker was on The Colbert Report in 2013 -- I just watched this video (I was looking for interviews with him, after realizing I've never actually seen him speaking...) and I laughed right out loud: