Human Smoke

Nicholson Baker has long been one of my favorite writers. His wide-ranging work suggests that he is trivially obsessive, a serious bibliophile, and possessed of an imaginatively dirty mind — all traits I really admire. I’ m right now plowing through his new non-fiction study of the build-up to World War II, Human Smoke.

It’s a new form both for him and for history writing in general — it most closely resembles an oral history in that it consists of multiple voices heard in short vignettes, but most of the perspectives are from news sources or public speeches. The book details day-by-day the inexorable march to war over the decade preceding it, and the effect is like a bad dream of watching the horror unfold at an accelerated rate, and feeling powerless to stop it. Reading through the end of 1939 I found myself hoping, against all logic, that the cease-fire would hold and that war would be averted. It’s a strange sensation. I can’t recommend it enough.

The reviews I’ve seen have mainly stratified along the line of whether the book makes a case against the “good war,” but I think that’s reductive; the form itself works against any singular, monolithic reading. I’m convinced that anyone who takes up this book will find their perspective on the war challenged and widened. We complain often enough, and rightfully enough, that history only gives us 20/2o hindsight, but when we go back and take a look at what foresight offered us and we chose to ignore — well, that’s sobering.

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