The following quotes from the novels, nonfiction, and interviews of Nicholson Baker reveal what Sonya Chung called “[t]he fluidity between high culture and mass culture” evident in books like 2009’s The Anthologist, as well as some of Baker’s other preoccupations: what life’s minutiae can reveal about its bigger meaning; age and the passage of time; and writing and the purpose of literature.
“‘Carpe diem’ doesn’t mean seize the day—it means something gentler and more sensible. ‘Carpe diem’ means pluck the day. Carpe, pluck. Seize the day would be ‘cape diem,’ if my school Latin serves. . . . What Horace had in mind was that you should gently pull on the day’s stem, as if it were, say, a wildflower or an olive, holding it with all the practiced care of your thumb and the side of your figure, which knows how to not crush easily crushed things. . . . Pluck the cranberry or blueberry of the day tenderly free without damaging it, is what Horace meant—pick the day, harvest the day, reap the day, mow the day, forage the day. Don’t freaking grab the day in your fist like a burger at a fairground and take a big chomping bite out of it.” —The Anthologist
“With fewer total cells, but more connections between each cell, the quality of your knowledge undergoes a transformation: you begin to have a feel for situations, people fall into types, your past memories link together, and your life begins to seem, as it hadn’t when you were younger, an inevitable thing composed of a million small failures and successes dependently intergrown, as opposed to a bright beadlike row of unaffiliated moments . . .
[W]hen your brain loses its spare capacity, and along with it some agility, some joy in winging it, and the ambition to do things that don’t suit it, then you finally have to settle down to do well the few things that your brain really can do well—the rest no longer seems pressing and distracting, because it is now permanently out of reach. The feeling that you are stupider than you were is what finally interests you in the really complex subjects of life: in change, in experience, in the ways other people have adjusted to disappointment and narrowed ability. You realize that you are no prodigy, your shoulders relax, and you begin to look around you, seeing local color unrivaled by the blue glows of algebra and abstraction.” —The Mezzanine (1988)
“I don’t like when precious things slip through people’s fingers—especially things that seem defenseless or undercelebrated, like old newspapers, but also unheralded people who may have said sensible things at a certain time in history, but who were completely drowned out by other people. Or minor poets whose lives were instructive. Sometimes I’m astounded by the absence of sentimentality in other people. How can you not become attached to the poignant scraps that flow through life?” —from a 2011 interview for The Paris Review’s “Art of Fiction” series
“[Wikipedia] was constructed, in less than eight years, by strangers who disagreed about all kinds of things but who were drawn to a shared, not-for-profit purpose. They were drawn because for a work of reference Wikipedia seemed unusually humble. It asked for help, and when it did, it used a particularly affecting word: ‘stub.’ At the bottom of a short article about something, it would say, ‘This article about X is a stub. You can help Wikipedia by expanding it.’ And you’d think: That poor sad stub: I will help . . .
And when people did help they were given a flattering name. They weren’t called ‘Wikipedia’s little helpers,’ they were called ‘editors.’ It was like a giant community leaf-raking project in which everyone was called a groundskeeper. . . . [A]ll the leaves they brought to the pile were appreciated. And the pile grew and everyone jumped up and down in it having a wonderful time . . .” —“The Charms of Wikipedia,” from 2012’s The Way the World Works: Essays
“I had a mental deadline that I would finish a book by the time I turned thirty. I blew the deadline . . . [M]y wife and I figured out that we could live for six months, mostly with the money she had saved up. I quit the job [as a technical writer] and wrote as hard as I’ve ever written . . .
My wife was working two days a week, so I would take care of our daughter, Alice, on those days, and she took care of Alice on the other days. When you have a child, you get a surge of ambition, or a surge of hormonal urgency, to get something done, something worthy of your new station in life. I gave myself a new deadline: Finish the novel while you’re still thirty. Do something your child might be able to read when she grows up.
My code name for the book was ‘Desperation.’” —from Baker’s Paris Review interview
“Sit in sun. Sun goes behind cloud. Look at watch. Notice that second-hand does not always point directly at little marks on dial. Sometimes it does, though. Then sometimes it doesn’t. Why? Feel panic at how quickly life slips by. Get to work.” —quoted in Jon Winokur’s Advice to Writers (2010)
“I wish I could say I have superhuman observational powers. I don’t. I like looking around and doing research—and talking to people about what they know—and I take a lot of notes. When it’s time to write a book, I look at what I have and ask, Is this what life is about? If it is, then I use it.” —from a 2013 interview celebrating the publication of Traveling Sprinkler
“The question any novel is trying to answer is, Is life worth living? That’s a major question, a huge question, but the best way to answer it might not be to crank the novelistic universe into a crude, lurching motion by employing a big, inciting incident. Sometimes life provides only the tiniest of inciting incidents—that your left shoelace snaps within a day of your right one.” —from Baker’s Paris Review interview
“[S]pending your life concentrating on death is like watching a whole move and thinking only about the credits that are going to roll at the end. It’s a mistake of emphasis.” —The Anthologist
Click here to read Sonya Chung’s feature piece on Nicholson Baker.
Homepage photo credit: Laura Gilmore