Nicholson Baker

From Academic Kids

Nicholson Baker (born January 7, 1957) is a contemporary American novelist.



Baker's highly unconventional novels de-emphasize traditional elements (particularly plot), emphasizing instead a very close level of introspection and sifting of thoughts and memories of the narrator.

Web postings and other data suggest that readers divide sharply in their evaluation of Baker's work. Many feel that the work wastes their time with trivia (Stephen King has notoriously compared Baker's work with fingernail clippings), but those who do enjoy the novels seem to appreciate them very much indeed. Baker's enthusiasts find his ability to minutely inspect and appreciate the contents of a human mind fascinating and unique. They often find echoes of their own thoughts, only better expressed, in Baker's books; and they judge that Baker can be extremely funny.

Plot ingredients of several of Baker's books (in particular, voyeurism and planned assassination) are called extremely offensive by some. Other readers admire Baker's courage in taking on such topics with directness and honesty.


Nicholson Baker was born in 1957 in Rochester, New York. He studied briefly at the Eastman School of Music and received his B.A. from Haverford College. He lives today with his wife and two children in South Berwick, Maine. Baker has been a fervent critic of librarians destroying materials. He wrote several vehement articles in The New Yorker critical of the San Francisco Public Library sending thousands of books to a landfill, the elimination of card catalogs, and destruction of old books and newspapers in favor of microfilm. He published a book based on his researches in this area, Double Fold, in which he accuses certain librarians of lying about the decay of materials and having an obsession for technological fads, at the expense of both the public and historical preservation. In 1999, he established a non-profit corporation, the American Newspaper Repository ( to rescue old newspapers from destruction by librarians.

In 1997 Baker received the Madison Freedom of Information Award.

Nicholson Baker's books

Spoiler warning: plot or ending details follow

The Mezzanine was Baker's first novel and presents the thoughts and memories of a young male office worker as he ascends an escalator up to the mezzanine of the office building where he works. The work created the genre in which Baker works and is its boldest representative. It abounds in long footnotes, including a vivid paean to long footnotes.

Vox is a book about an episode of phone sex between two young single people, created a mild sensation, particularly when it emerged that it had been given by Monica Lewinsky to Bill Clinton. The sex scenes in the book, though quite vivid, nevertheless share the basic approach that Baker took in The Mezzanine; in this case, he explores his two characters' accumulated thoughts and memories as they relate to sex. For some readers, Baker's obsession with detail apparently detracts from a hoped-for pornographic effect. Others, in reading the imaginative sex stories that the two protagonists make up for each another, have perceived a budding romantic affection: the last act they perform before hanging up is to exchange phone numbers.

U and I: A True Story is partly an appreciation of John Updike, partly a kind of self-exploration, a non-fiction study of how a reader engages with the work of an author.

The Fermata is the most controversial of Baker's novels; to quote the dust jacket of one edition: "Arno Strine likes to stop time and take women's clothes off. He is hard at work on his autobiography, The Fermata. It proves in the telling to be a very provocative, funny, and altogether morally confused piece of work."

A Box of Matches is in many ways a continuation of Room Temperature, similarly mining the Baker-resembling narrator's store of reflections and memories, many of them domestic. The narrator is now middle-aged and has a family. He rises each morning at about 5:30, lights a fire in the fireplace, and ponders. The work is admired, but is rather less exuberant than the original.

Checkpoint is composed of dialogue between two old high school friends, Jay and Ben, who discuss Jay's plans to assassinate President George W. Bush. Jay is a unbalanced day laborer who, in the depths of anger and desperation at Bush's actions and his inability to do anything to stop them, has traveled to Washington D.C. to kill the president, using such diverse methods as depleted uranium boulders, flying radio-controlled CD saws, homing bullets marinated with the President's picture, and hypnotized Manchurian scorpions. Ben has met Jay in a Washington D.C. hotel room, unaware that his friend is planning to commit "a major, major, major crime." Over the course of the novella Ben discusses what drove Jay to plot an assassination. Baker portrays a sense of desperation felt widely in our time, as well as the extremes of frustration that a man can be brought to. Reviewers have pointed out that the book is mild and the planned violence so cartoonish that it is unthreatening.

Publication data



External links

Secondary literature

  • Cox, Richard J. Vandals in the Stacks? A Response to Nicholas Baker's Assault on Libraries. Greenwood Press, 2002. ISBN 0313323445
  • Saltzman, Arthur M. Understanding Nicholson Baker. University of South Carolina Press, 1999. ISBN 157003303X
  • Star, Alexander. "The Paper Pusher." The New Republic. May 28, 2001. Baker

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