The Wondering Warrior
It's hard to picture Nicholson Baker causing a media riot or even an argument over a game of Pictionary. A lanky man with a gray beard, he gives off professorial vibes floating somewhere between The Paper Chase and Wonder Boys: warm, disarming, his voice a riff on the fireworks inside his head. His half dozen novels and two essay collections give a full body massage to the little objects of everyday life. The Mezzanine, published in 1988, is a 135-page description of a lunch hour trip to buy new shoelaces. Its follow-up, Room Temperature, gives the same zoomed-way-in treatment to feeding a newborn baby. Critics love his brilliantly crafted mini-treatises on toenail clippers, flatulence and writing on rubber with a ballpoint pen. Baker's popularity has also grown steadily since the Starr Report leaked that Monica Lewinsky loaned her copy of his third novel (the book length phone sex conversation Vox) to President Clinton. Vox got the author labeled a pornographer, for a while. But that was nearly 10 years ago and American Psycho it ain't.
Meanwhile, his latest book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, has caused a stir among the nation's librarians, a group that gets riled up about as often as a tray of peat moss. Gone is Baker's leisurely, ornate prose, once described as watching someone turn slow summersaults on the lawn. Instead, he sees something ridiculous going on and says so. Double Fold argues that, over the last century, institutions like the Library of Congress and the New York Public have thrown out old newspapers en masse and replaced them with poor quality microfilm. In a frenzy for federal grants, libraries have fomented hysteria around old books and periodicals "turning to dust," while simulataneously charging forward with wasteful preservation research -- all of which Baker contends is abhorent. The words "mass destruction" and "holocaust" appear more than once in the book.
Such stridency has resulted in Baker being branded a crank, a luddite as well as an eccentric novelist with a strange hobby. Cornell and the University of Pittsburgh, among others, have published responses to Double Fold, commending Baker for raising important issues while pointing out their own extensive preservation efforts. Jim Neal of Johns Hopkins was quick to point out that his university has built state-of-the-art storage for older manuscripts. Scott Bennett at Yale and Shirley K. Baker, president of the Association of Research Libraries, both stress that large scale pulping of books and newspapers hasn't been library policy for over a decade and that, given budget constraints, "choices do have to be made."
Baker isn't convinced: "This is how libraries will defend themselves by saying this is part of the distant past," he told me over the phone. "Some are doing much better. But we had a terrible problem for a while. My book is saying: 1) This was a mistake, let's learn from it; and 2) 'newspaper projects' are still going full throttle where bound volumes are cut, microfilmed and tossed out. What I'm hoping is that we'll get it right this time."
Baker has taken this message on the road. At a recent book promotion he compared the original art nouveau illustrations from Joseph Pulitizer's New York World to its grainy, blurred microfilm duplicate. The slide show elicited gasps from the audience.
"The concerned people are a larger circle than I thought," said Baker, later. "The man on the street understands why we want to keep these things around. The people who don't seem to get it are certain library administrators."
In researching Double Fold (the name comes from a test used to determine the sustainability of an old book), Baker put his time where he mouth was and became a librarian himself. Last year, he founded the American Newspaper Repository, a nonprofit storage facility near his home in Maine that preserves old newspapers in their original form.
"Forming a library and becoming a librarian myself has totally screwed up my life, but not in a bad way," he said. "I write books. That's what I do, so Double Fold generating some controversy really doesn't bother me. Sorting thousands of volumes of bound newspapers, well that's really frightening."
Baker says he sees the American Newspaper Repository as both a final resting place for old newspapers and evidence that newsprint decay happens much slower than libraries profess. Ultimately, he'd like to place the collection with a major research library, but "It would have to be inconceivable that anything would happen to these papers, should some less enlightened administrator take over."
The image of a respected novelist fussing over old papers like so many baseball cards has given book critics a little grist ("It's not global warming or world hunger," chuckled David Gates in the New York Times) but also left them wondering why Baker would step off the ascent of his career to do so. Yet draw a line from The Mezzanine on through his essay collection The Size of Thoughts on to Double Fold and it makes perfect sense: Baker girds each of his books on the wonder of little things. Books and newspapers are treasure chests of little things as are the results of a writer's labor .
"Critics call me a 'miniaturist,'" said Baker. "But even if there's a slight disparagement in that, I don't mind getting called anything. A writer first has to be interesting, and a book either finds readers over the long term or it doesn't."
Which may be why the national media and readers will listen to Baker both pound a lectern in the name of newspaper preservation and soliliquize the passing thoughts of a lunch hour. It takes both chops and nerve to strive to be continually interesting without sinking into preciousness, something Baker almost never gets called.
"I like to call myself thorough," he said, laughing. "The idea of writing a whole book about a man on his lunch hour is that it's a kind of realism. We think a great deal about the things we do everyday. The crisis moments we have -- getting fired, divorce, death -- are things we don't feel prepared for because we don't think about them everyday. Seeing no difference between shallow and deep allows me to pull in the eternal verities in passing. It's the tape around the cap stands of an old reel-to-reel movie projector. I want to get to the big reel, but I want to take the long path through the details."
Baker is already working on his next novel, in addition to spending his days as a newspaper librarian. It seems like an odd mix, creating new words in the morning (when he likes to write) and preserving old ones in the afternoon. Baker admits he's puzzled as to how he ended up an advocate for old newspapers, but he notes it has changed his answer to the tired old question "How would you like to be remembered?"
"I used to say in college I wanted to be remembered as a good dancer, but now, I think, as the guy who saves the papers. And wrote one good book."
He takes a deep breath that makes the phone receiver sound like a seashell.
"I don't know. Maybe it's too big a question for me."
Kevin Smokler is the publisher of CentralBooking.com, a website devoted to book culture, on which a previous version of this article appeared.