Why I love Nicholson Baker’s writing

From Room Temperature:

But my mother’s informal punctuation in the op-ed letter came as a complete surprise; and the fact that my immediate instinctive response to it was to point out the misplaced commas so harshly that she wept (the only time, as far as I remember, that I ever hurt her feelings — for she understood and was even amused by my teenage request that whenever the two of us walked down the street together, she would please walk at least three yards ahead of me, so that people wouldn’t know we were related; and she even played along in her compliance, whistling, walking with a theatrical solitariness, checking her pocketbook, pausing abruptly to glance at a window display), as if these faulty commas called into question our standing as a family — the fact that I had been instinctively so cruel, made me double up with misery when, after I was married, I came across some sentences in Boswell that were punctuated just as hers had been. Boswell (and De Quincey, Edward Young, and others) had treated the sunken garden of a parenthetical phrase just as my mother had — as something to be prepared for and followed by the transitional rounding and softening of a comma. And such hybrids — of comma and parenthesis, or of semicolon and parenthesis, too — might at least in some cases allow for finer calibrations between phrases, subtler subordinations, irregular varieties of exuberance and magisteriality and fragile conjunction. In our desire for provincial correctness and holy-sounding simplicity and the rapid teachability of intern copy editors we had illegalized all variant forms — and, as with the loss of subvarieties of corn or apples, this homogenization of product was accomplished at a major unforeseen cost: our stiff-jointed prose was less able, so I now huffily thought, full of vengeance against the wrong I had done my mother, to adapt itself to those very novelties of social and technological life whose careful interpretation and weighting was the principal reason for the continued indispensability of the longer sentence.

The longer sentence, indeed. And the longer paragraph, the exuberance, the digressions, the obsession with the comma, the fact that he can write a novel about a man spending twenty minutes with his infant daughter …

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

10 responses to “Why I love Nicholson Baker’s writing

  1. I love it, too! I’m stunned by his ability to capture heartbreak so well with a discussion of something that DOES cause heartbreak, but which most people would think was so mundane and irrelevent. Of course, the editor in me likes the fact that it’s a jab at holier-than-thou editors (of whom I’ve known just a few) ruled by their desires for “provincial correctness” who so often miss what the author is really trying to say in their rush to “fix” a misplaced punctuation mark.

  2. Oh, you’d love the following passage then — in the same paragraph — where he complains bitterly about editors “modernizing” the punctuation of classic writers like Gibbon and Robert Boyle. And then he goes on to fantasize about writing a book on the comma. Great stuff!

  3. I have Nicholson Baker’s essays to read and a copy of The Fermata sitting on my bedside table. I must get a move on!

  4. verbivore

    This is just wonderful. I will definitely have to read him myself one of these days.

  5. I love the passage! I think I have some Baker around here somewhere. Must get around to reading him. I am reminded every time you mention him, so don’t stop mentioning him! :)

  6. Off topic, but thought you might find this story interesting: commuting by bike. A very amusing way to take care of travel issues where there are lots of islands and fjords.

  7. I really need to try something by Baker. You’ve mentioned him several times now and his work seems so interesting. I’ve only read Vox, and no doubt at the time it was for the racy content (rather than any sort of experimental content)!

  8. Litlove — I read his essay collection The Size of Thoughts and found it both brilliant and unreadable in places (his essay on the word “lumber” in particular). I’d be willing to try more though. And I need to read The Fermata.

    Verbivore — well, I’d love to know what you think!

    Stefanie — there are a few novels and essays I haven’t read yet, so I’m sure I’ll keep posting on him — and I want to write a review of Room Temperature too.

    Bikkuri — thanks for the link — I wish I could commute that way!

    Danielle — I do like Baker a lot; I’d recommend The Mezzanine, which is my favorite so far.

  9. adevotedreader

    What a wonderful paragraph! I’ve never heard of Nicholson Baker before, so will have to give his work a try.

  10. Ohhh, reading that passage made my head hurt- am I the only one?

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