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Human Smoke: Let's talk about it.

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of CivilizationHas anyone else heard about this book Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker? I'd been on hold for it forever at the library, and it finally came in. I hadn't heard much about it, just that it was going to be controversial. And so it has been:

Anne Applebaum called it a "profoundly bad book about World War II."

William Grimes, for The New York Times, called it a "self-important, hand-wringing, moral mess of a book."

And, holy cow, in this roundtable discussion at Ed Rants, they say lots of things about the book, most of which I don't understand, but all of which prove they a) read this book much more carefully than I did, b) know Nicholson Baker better than I do, particularly as a novelist, and are just c) way, way smarter than I am.

So, WHAT is it? Well, that I can nutshell for you. It is a history book about World War II, told entirely in disparate anecdotes, culled from newspapers, diaries, and other sources of the time, and which ends on December 31, 1941. I don't think there is any big secret that Baker means to skew it in the direction of stating "maybe World War II wasn't the best idea" (in his brief afterword, after all, he dedicates the book to American and British pacifists: "they tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right."),

And HOW is it? Well, I'd be lying if I said I think Baker's on the wrong track with his pacifist bent. I also must say that I found the first forty pages of the book very, very interesting. But I will not be able to read the whole thing, and this was a surprise, because I've never thought of myself as a particularly story-driven reader. But to read 475 pages of something that has absolutely no narrative and few comprehensively drawn characters? That's tough.

That said, this would be a book I might actually buy, because Baker cites all his sources, and it does give you a lot of food for thought. When I read something like this:

"Franklin Roosevelt, now a lawyer in New York City, noticed that Jews made up one-third of the freshman class at Harvard. He talked the problem over with Henry Morgenthau, Sr., and he went to the Harvard Board of Overseers, of which he was a member. 'It was decided,' Roosevelt later explained, 'that over a period of years the number of Jews should be reduced one or two per cent a year until it was down to 15%.' It was about 1922." (p. 9.)

I don't immediately believe FDR was a huge anti-semite. But it makes me want to learn a little bit more about him. The whole book, in fact, made me want to learn a little bit more about World War II, which is more than I can say for any of those crap-pandering Greatest Generation books or Stephen Ambrose's cottage industry tomes. Can that really be so wrong?

No, Baker is not a historian, which Applebaum points out so aggressively that it makes you wonder if she thinks her own career is secure (it should be; she won the Pulitzer Prize for Gulag: A History). Nor is he an expert. I think the New York Sun review had it right: "No one who knows about World War II will take 'Human Smoke' at all seriously." And maybe that's why I think it's got merit, and it's unique, and it deserves at least a look. Perhaps people who don't know very much about World War II need to start getting educated--so we have a leg to stand on when we converse with people who know (or think they know) everything about World War II. I think that has value.

Forgot to add: There's an interesting post about this book over at Books Are My Only Friends. Also, the blurbs on the back of it are very interesting as well, from Daniel Ellsberg (author of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers), historian Simon Winchester, Gar Alperovitz, and Chalmers Johnson. Johnson is the author of the superlative titles Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire; I will look at anything he puts his name on.