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The Size of Thoughts
Nicholson Baker

The Size of Thoughts
Nicholson Baker
Chatto & Windus
London 1996
0 7011 6301 1

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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 deconstructed.

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 e". [sic]

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


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