In the title piece of this erudite and obsessively researched
collection of essays and journalism, Nicholson Baker asserts that:
"Each thought has a size, and most are about three feet tall…"
A strangely extravagant claim, coming from a man who can write
3000 words on the subject of toe-nail clippers: in Clip Art,
the reader is treated to a minute examination of clipper design
and function, a history of clippers, clipping versus paring, what
clippers clip and the unpredictable angle of trajectory taken
by a nail shard when clipped, complete with literary quotations
– "The cutting of a fingernail is important in Nabokov…"
Horror writer Stephen King’s description of one of Baker’s books
as a "meaningless little fingernail paring" is meticulously
Although one is inclined to agree with King, there is a kind of
insanity about Baker – the pathological attention to detail, the
compulsive use of puns and neologisms, the fixation on certain
objects – a manic energy which can on occasion push inch-tall
ideas to vertiginous heights. Three of the pieces in this book,
on the history of punctuation, a long essay on library catalogues
written for the New Yorker, and a review of an historical
slang dictionary, show Baker’s peculiar talent at its very best.
The latter piece, entitled Leading with the Grumper – grumper
being rare US slang for buttocks – is an example of very high-class
lavatory humour, made delightful by Baker’s fresh and joyous approach
to terms such as chicken-fucker, banana nose, and cunt-struck.
He ends the review with a matrix of "related insults".
Listed on the left-hand edge are insulting prefixes such as cheese-,
grease-, scum- and slime-. Similarly offensive suffixes line the
top edge: bag!, wad!, wipe! and he places an x to indicate
existing slang, i.e. scum-bag, or a question mark for a plausible
compound, i.e. cheese-wipe.
The pièce de résistance, though, is Discards,
but then it’s the only essay with any real weight. The subject
is the computerization of data storage in America’s university
libraries and the consequent trashing of the hand- and type-written
card catalogues, likened by one historian to the burning of the
library at Alexandria. Baker is no technophobe, but in Discards
he shows exactly what has been lost in this "paroxysm of
short-sightedness and anti-intellectualism".
Unfortunately – perhaps inevitably – this standard is not sustained
throughout the book.
Mlack, for example, an assemblage of the undeleted text
which accumulates at the base of a word-processed document – in
this case the final page of Baker’s baby novel Room Temperature
– is pure drivel. Earnestly presented in Experimental Poem format,
it begins: "three days a week oruhizzing bubbling llbbing
Far worse than Mlack, however, is the subitular Lumber,
as in useless stuff or timber, etc. Whereas Mlack is mercifully
brief, the fat arse of Lumber hogs the last three-sevenths
of the book – over 150 pages dedicated to the L-word. Lumber is
Baker’s Lo-lee-ta. In the first section he confesses that almost
a year of his life has been devoted to the fetishistic pursuit
of the unnymphettish Lum-bah through the continent of literature.
Information-rich, bristling with footnotes and scholastic ornaments
– you can always count on a lexicographer for a fancy prose style
– Lumber ultimately disappears up its own arse. It’s the
opposite of Unputdownable!.
The Size of Thoughts would be a far better book if there wasn’t
so much unnecessary padding. Inside there’s a slim, yet perfectly-formed
volume trying to get out.
Reviewed by Tara Howard