I’m forever getting reacquainted with the big, unreadable books on my shelves; last night it was The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. I was trying once again to figure out structuralism and post-structuralism. Somehow I found myself back at Pyrrhonian skepticism and from there, Diogenes Laertius. One sentence in the short notice drew my attention: “He had a taste for anecdote and paradox, but no talent for philosophical exposition.” The same has been said of Nicholson Baker, and in much the same narrow minded spirit.
I finally read Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. For a long time I was put off by the way it’s put together: Human Smoke is strung together out of snippets from newspapers, diaries and a variety of other contemporary reports. There’s little commentary and few signs of a thesis. I ended up being won over, however. Before I say more, let me admit that Baker’s interview on Amazon explains much better than I could what he was about. A friend also wrote a note on her blog that I think is pretty much right on.
We generally appreciate that the bombing campaigns of World War II were pretty horrific. What is less appreciated is that the campaigns’ military effectiveness is still debated. Alongside of evidence of bombing’s colossal waste and the futile, sick fantasy that punishing civilians would lead to compromise, Baker steadily focuses on the many thwarted efforts to actually help the people, the Jews and other refugees, that we sometimes think this good war was fought for. By ending his book with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Baker ensures that phases like the phony war, that might be skipped over to get to the “good stuff”, are given due weight. It’s remarkable that nothing about the war feels inevitable in this treatment. I’m not quite to the point of agreeing with Baker that the pacifists were right, as he says in the end, but I’m thinking about it.
On Monday I bought Baker’s recent collection of essays, The Way the World Works. The title seems like a bit much, but I was won over by a piece on video games. I’m glad he shares my high opinion of the adventure/shooter Uncharted 2. There’s also an essay called “Why I am a Pacifist” I’m very curious about.