On Nicholson Baker’s ‘Lumber’

February 11, 2022 § Leave a comment

At the Ploughshares blog, I wrote about Nicholson Baker’s long essay ‘Lumber,’ included in The Size of Thoughts (1996). It’s an essay I’ve read a number of times, one that never ceases to fascinate me for all the directions it goes in, as Baker sorts through endless dictionaries, databases, and indexes to track use of the phrase lumber room and its application as a metaphor (for the dead weight of knowledge stored in the mind) passed from one writer to the next, from Dryden to Pope to Goethe to Arthur Conan Doyle.

“Lumber” is a celebration not just of linguistic legacy; it also celebrates how knowledge can be stretched, extended, and just how much can be extracted about the most particular of subjects. In this way, the essay picks up on the mental dynamism shown off by The Mezzanine. That book, while structured as a work of fiction, is a paean to the vastness and rapidity of thought, as we follow a man returning from lunch-hour errands as he rides an escalator to his office building’s second floor. In those few narrative seconds, we are provided discourses on all manner of minor subjects that flash into his brain as he proceeds: the design of shoelaces and plastic drinking straws; the consistent way that light reflects off a moving object; the satisfying mechanics of vending machines. While for most of us such thoughts are fleeting, the energy more in the question than the answer, The Mezzanine, with its rabbit-hole structure, allows Baker (through his nominal character Howie) to offer deep meditations about all of these commonplace things, about which it turns out there is an astonishingly great deal to say.

A thing I came to appreciate as I re-read ‘Lumber’ was that Baker published it before Google was a thing. There’s something pleasing about the way he goes about his research, using CD-ROMs of all things. Part of my essay is about that.  

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