I don't know about you, but I'd be pretty friggin' excited if I found him eating cookies in my house. Beyond that, Nicholson Baker's essays just give me that winter feeling. Maybe it's because I always picture him in his rustic log cabin in Maine, throwing hunks of cedar that he's recently chopped into a woodburning stove. Maybe it's because I imagine him drinking coffee at all hours of the day, lumbering around his house in ski socks and sweat pants. But mostly it's because the experience of reading one of his essays makes me wish that I was snowbound, even though I live in Tucson, because being snowbound would mean that I could sit in my house all day and read his essays, uninterrupted. That's how good they are.
It was hard for me to even pick one essay. Each one is like a charm on a bracelet, you want to keep them linked together and close to you. But the charm I always keep on my wrist is his excellent "Books as Furniture," from his 1997 collection, The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber. I first came upon it as a recommendation from a teacher, who said that Baker was a master of quirky research. I love how in many of his essays, he starts from a banal kind of stand point--in this case, flipping through a cheesy mail-order catalogue--but it's what he notices and how he pushes and pushes his observations that really make him a stand out. For those unfamiliar with the essay, Baker's looking through a catalogue called "The Company Store," when he notices that the books that live on these fake peoples' bookshelves and rest on their beds aren't your regular 'ol Penguin classics, but are instead "beat-up editions of forgotten nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century books." Many of the titles on these books are practically indecipherable, but, somehow, (I like to imagine that Baker got out a magnifying glass) he finds out. And he not only finds out, but he finds these books at libraries and reads these books. Some of the books are less than perfect and some of them, he says, are worth reading. The titles that he finds include The Wood-Carver of 'Lympus and Tongues of Flame and Learn to Die. These are books that would've been long forgotten, if it hadn't been for mail order catalogues from The Company Store and Pottery Barn. These are books that would've long been forgotten if it hadn't been for Baker's sharp eye, for his surprising and restless research.
And, in true Baker fashion, he doesn't stop there. No, of course not. He not only reads these books, but these books lead him to other books. And those books lead him to more libraries. And the libraries lead him into deeper research, deeper thinking. He creates a beautiful spiral of digressions about the history of bookshelves and meditations on how and why we display our books and arguments about how "the book, considered as a four-corned piece of technology, bound on one side, is still surprisingly young." As the title suggests, he begins to see the books that line his six bookcases as furniture, as art, as ornaments. And, as so happens when one looks at an ornament, like a shiny red reflective ball on a Christmas tree, he sees himself.
Allie Leach's work has appeared in South Loop Review, Hot Metal Bridge, Diagram, and Tucson Weekly. She lives in Tucson and works at The University of Arizona Poetry Center. In her spare time, she's plotting to become a professional tap dancer and collector of miniatures.
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