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THE SIZE OF THOUGHTS by Nicholson Baker

THE SIZE OF THOUGHTS

By Nicholson Baker

Pub Date: April 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-679-43932-3
Publisher: Random House

Showing off Baker's Sears catalog eclecticism and word-playfulness, this collection is congenial kin to his thoughtful, fiddly novels The Mezzanine and Room Temperature rather than the garrulously oversexed Vox.

These essays and other "lumber" (in its English sense) show off Baker's ideas of scale and subject matter, loosely categorized under rubrics the likes of "Thought," "Machinery," and "Library Science." In Baker's fastidiously discursive approach, the more obscure or minute the subject--such as model airplanes, nail clippers, punctuation marks, slang terminology, or typos--the longer and deeper he goes. His entertaining piece on the movie projector focuses on the transition from reel-to-reel projectors to the modern oversized platter systems, then zooms in on the crucial Maltese cross, the tiny, remarkably precise moving part that drives both. In a lighter study he deciphers and itemizes the books used by upscale furniture companies as props in their mail-order catalogs. An article on the history of punctuation fixes such picayune marks as the ancient cryphia or the medieval pilcrow within the history of Western writing. The collection's two longest pieces reveal the tensions and complements of his antiquarianism and gadget-mania: respectively, cyberspace's on-line library catalogs and the etymology and literary history of the word lumber. In the former, Baker sometimes loses his perspective in the debate over card catalogs versus Boolean-search-driven databases, jumbling nostalgia and practicality. The latter is, at 140 pages, an indulgent tour de force, and also a metaphor for eclectic learning, as he browses through Pope, Johnson, Webster, etc., for lumber's meanings.

Although Baker sometimes strains when he directly addresses his concerns and predilections, it takes a rare combination of wit and effort to seem this facile without actually being so.