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Posts Tagged ‘Nicholson Baker’

The Sharpened Pencil: An Interview with Nicholson Baker

October 4, 2016 | by

Photo: Jerry Bauer

Speaking to The Paris Review in 2011, Nicholson Baker remembered one of the small joys of his childhood. “The pencil sharpener was probably the best thing about school,” he said. “A little chrome invention under your control. It had a ­thundering sound, a throat-clearing sound, that I especially liked.”

As it happens, pencil sharpeners appear early and often in his new book, Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids. But they’re all electric now, and they’ve lost their thunder. “There was a lot of earnest grinding away at the fancy electric pencil sharpener,” he writes on page thirty. Twelve pages later, “Someone else was grinding loudly away on the mechanical pencil sharpener.” On page 111 he mentions again “the remedial grind of the pencil sharpener.”

There’s a sound reason for this anti-sharpener rhetoric: in 2014 Baker became a substitute teacher at several Maine public schools, where the sharpeners’ grinding is just one agent in a multifront sensory assault, and further proof that technology doesn’t equal improvement. Substitute—Baker’s thoughtful, well-observed chronicle of his twenty-eight days in the classroom—catalogs the bells, the morning announcements, the iPad games, the lively chatter, and all the miscellaneous noise that characterize a day at school. Rather than a broadside against the education system, Substitute’s seven-hundred-plus pages offer a close, empathetic account of Baker’s time as a teacher, trading editorial asides for the richness—and, not infrequently, madness—of our efforts to impart knowledge. For every meaningless worksheet or recess infraction, there’s a warm, witty exchange with a student, or a moment, however brief, of genuine engagement. 

Substitute is Baker’s sixteenth book; though he’s written nonfiction before, it marks his first outing as a participatory journalist, and he called it the most immersive book of his career. I reached him in his hotel room in Atlanta to ask him a few questions about it.


This is basically an act of participatory journalism, but it’s not like any other account I’ve read. Did you have any touchstones in mind?



Well, there’s George Plimpton. If you want to write about football, get yourself on a football team. If you want to write about boxing, you’re going to have to get punched in the head a few times. That’s what I did with Substitute. When I was in high school I read Up the Down Staircase and really loved it—all those wonderful memos—and in fact there was an actual down staircase and an up staircase in the middle school where I was a substitute. Two nonfiction books, Death at an Early Age and The Way it Spozed to Be also made a huge impression back then, even though I’d gone to an alternative public high school that was nothing like what was described in those books. Once I began writing Substitute in earnest, I tossed educational theorizing aside for the most part and went back to the method I’d used in Human Smoke, a book about World War II, where I did a lot of quoting from daily sources—newspaper articles and diaries and speeches on the radio. Substitute is a sort of collage of voices. In Human Smoke, I took my own voice out completely, but in Substitute I couldn’t—I had to be true to my own teacherly fumblings. Read More »

Live Your Best Pod Life, and Other News

September 30, 2016 | by

Photo: scarletgreen

  • Today in extravagant acts of self-protection: Julian Barnes wasn’t a fan of his first novel, 1980’s Metroland. So he wasn’t surprised when it got a savage notice in an organ called The Daily Sniveler by one “Mack the Knife”—a nom de guerre for Barnes himself. Yes, Barnes trashed his own novel, just so he could be sure he got there first. “In the old days,” he wrote, “the Sensitive Young Man, after producing his novel, would slide back into the obscurity of book-reviewing and hock-and-seltzer; he would in middle age be much taken with writing letters to the newspapers; and in old age, chairbound in his club, he would reveal himself to be the unremitting philistine which his earlier manifestation had sought to conceal. We must wish Mr Barnes well as he sets off on this inevitable journey.”

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Staff Picks: Stage Fright, Substitute Teachers, Skin

September 9, 2016 | by

Photo: Charlotte Strick

Alex Prager’s brilliant ten-minute film La Grande Sortie in its U.S. debut, is looping in the upstairs screening room of Lehmann Maupin Gallery through October 23. Prager has imagined for us the marvelously grotesque descent of a prima ballerina into a state of hysteria provoked by our worst fears of stage fright. Witnessed through the shifting perspectives of the dancer (the remarkably theatric Émilie Cozette) and her ever more repulsive and hostile audience, the ballerina’s derangement reminds one of a desperate Mia Farrow surrounded by equal parts evil and camp in Rosemary’s Baby. Even on the fourth viewing, my heart rate surged in time with the stabbing string instruments in the film’s score, sampled from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and composed by Radiohead’s producer, Nigel Godrich. Layered under these orchestral notes is the amplified tap-tap-tap of scraping toe shoes across the wooden stage, the flapping of the dancer’s tulle skirt, and the noisy fidgeting of her restless audience. I marveled at Prager’s ability to create such a polished and darkly humorous examination of the extremes of human anxiety and artificiality. And the artist delivers up a panic-filled surprise ending worthy of a Hollywood horror flick. —Charlotte Strick

Type our education system into Google and Autofill will finish your thought: “is broken.” “Is outdated.” “Is flawed.” Any Joe on the street can tell you that. But Nicholson Baker strode bravely into the classroom to see just how defective our schools are: for six months in 2014, he subbed for K–12 teachers in Maine. His new book, Substitute, is a close record of the hairline cracks and scotch-tape fixes that are comprised by a public education. Rather than fulminate or theorize, Baker offers a lively day-by-day account of everything he saw and heard in the classroom. It’s storytelling as commentary, and it means that Substitute’s seven hundred pages fly by, filled as they are with the mulch of student life: the iPad games, the idle chatter, the dioramas and worksheets and silent-reading blocks. Fans of Baker’s know he can elevate any subject—this is a man who’s written compellingly about vacuum cleaners—and the tedium of teaching finds him pressing his gift for metaphor to ever more creative ends: “We all walked to the cafeteria, where there was a massive molten fondue of noise.” Or: “We were swimming in a warm, lifeless salt pond of geopolitical abstraction.” —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

It All Started with Algae, and Other News

September 8, 2016 | by


  • If I know you, reader, you were about to throw your hands up, abandon your career, move to a small town, and eke out a living as a substitute teacher. But wait! Nicholson Baker spent the first half of 2014 as a sub in Maine, and he wrote everything down, and the outlook is grim. Here’s what he took away from his time in the trenches of our public-education system: “In my experience, every high-school subject, no matter how worthy and jazzy and thought-­provoking it may have seemed to an earnest Common Corer, is stuffed into the curricular Veg-­O-­Matic, and out comes a nasty packet with grading rubrics on the back. On the first page, usually, there are numbered ‘learning targets,’ and inside, inevitably, a list of specialized vocabulary words to master. In English it’s unreliable narrator, or ethos, or metonymy, or thesis sentence. This is all fluff knowledge, meta-­knowledge. In math, kids must memorize words like apothem and Cartesian coordinate; in science they chant domain! kingdom! phylum! class!, etc., and meiosis and allele and daughter cell and third-class lever and the whole Tinkertoy edifice of terms that acts to draw people away from the freshness and surprise and fantastic interfused complexity of the world and darkens our brains with shadowy taxonomic abstractions.”

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Pockets—They’re Still Great! And Other News

March 23, 2016 | by


  • The cafard and mirthlessness that have long governed French philosophers have now extended to French writers of all kinds—a new survey says they’ve never been unhappier. Their proposed solution? Surrender. “French writers have never felt more badly paid, undervalued, or under pressure … More than half of established authors earn less than the minimum wage. Many are so depressed by the state of the book industry that they are considering giving up altogether, according to a new report that canvassed more than 100,000 authors of fiction and nonfiction … Although exact comparisons are difficult to make, French writers appear to be still doing better than their British or American equivalents.”
  • BREAKING: Nicholson Baker loves pockets. Give him a good pair of pockets, he’s happier than a pig in shit. And who isn’t, really? You gonna look me in the eye and tell me you don’t like pockets? “I’m a pocket-loving guy,” Baker says in a new podcast. “At any moment I got a couple pens—like why would you have just one pen? For a long time I tried to do everything with pockets … the pocketing of things. The prestidigitational trickery of being able to move things from the world of public visibility into a private place. It sort of feels to me like writing. Or I guess, what I like about writing, is that paragraphs take your most personal observations, or embarrassments sometimes, fantasies, whatever they are, and you fill them up, and it feels as if you’re putting them away or you’re stowing them, you’re pocketing them. But then because of the weird and wonderful act of publishing, you’re making public what you have hidden.”
  • Terry Southern’s letters are full of the humor you’d expect from him, Will Stephenson writes—but as windows into his personal life, they’re curiously opaque. “There’s something cold about Southern’s persona, in other words—he’s always in character, always on. The letters come complete with scenes and dialogue—a voice that’s arch and faux-pretentious, recalling the comedian Lord Buckley—and his habit of signing them under false names only thickens the fog. Reading the book, I wondered whether Southern would have really wanted to see it published, or whether that matters. I wondered whether I even liked Terry Southern anymore, having read it … The majority of these letters, though, have to do with the labor and economics of writing … In some ways, this is the major theme of the collection—where is the next check going to come from?”
  • Alex Mar on Doreen Valiente, once dubbed “the mother of modern paganism,” who believed that witchcraft was simply a means of accessing one’s own power: “One particular image of Doreen Valiente tells two unresolvable stories at once. In this black-and-white portrait, perhaps taken in the fifties at her home in Brighton, she is, at first glance, a suburban wife seated before a pale curtain, wearing a patterned cocktail dress, a string of stones around her neck. (She was in her thirties then, her jet-black hair cut short in a wavy bob, her lips and brows painted in.) But then the photograph becomes complicated: spread before her on a table is an altar laid out with a crystal ball, a bowl, rope, candles, and incense; in one hand she holds up a large bell, in the other a ritual knife … She is the Nerd Queen, a person of rare esoteric knowledge. She is Doreen Valiente, the Mother of Modern Witchcraft … ‘I had never felt any objection to working in the nude,’ she writes. ‘On the contrary, it was fun to be free and to dance out the circle in freedom.’ ”
  • I consider it part of my job to keep you abreast of quiet advances in the robot-writing community—so you should know that artificial intelligences can now write well enough to make headway in literary contests. “In Japan, a short novel co-written by an artificial intelligence program (its co-author is human) made it past the first stage of a literary contest … Humans decided the plot and character details of the novel, then entered words and phrases from an existing novel into a computer, which was able to construct a new book using that information … The prize committee didn’t disclose which of the four computer co-written entries advanced in the competition. The Japan News reports that one of the submitted books is titled The Day a Computer Writes a Novel, which ends with the sentences ‘I writhed with joy, which I experienced for the first time, and kept writing with excitement. The day a computer wrote a novel. The computer, placing priority on the pursuit of its own joy, stopped working for humans.’ ”

The Thrills of Good Suction, and Other News

May 15, 2015 | by


(Nicholson Baker, Bissell Zing not pictured.)

  • Gay Talese has held on to his address book for fifty years, and he’s never erased a name. It has just the kind of history and pedigree that makes documentarians salivate—so, sure enough, it’s soon to be the subject of a documentary. “ ‘Do you really think you can make a film out of this?’ Talese asked me, somewhere around the F’s. Absolutely, I told him.”
  • William Zinsser has died at ninety-two. His On Writing Well belongs on the shelf next to Strunk and White—a clear, well-styled guide to clear, well-styled writing. A classic Zinsserism: “There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”
  • In which Nicholson Baker, a vacuumer as much as a writer, contends with the utility and beauty of true suction: “So strong is the Zing’s suction that it has a volume dial in its forehead that you can adjust on the fly from gentle to area-rug-ravaging. I vacuumed several rooms before a dinner party last week and found myself singing Irish drinking songs loudly as I worked.”
  • Hannah Arendt is still at the center of the argument: “Like so many Jewish texts throughout the ages, Eichmann in Jerusalem is an invitation to an auto-da-fé. Only in this case, almost all of the inquisitors are Jews. What is it about this most Jewish of texts that makes it such a perennial source of rancor among Jews, and what does their rancor tell us about Jewish life in the shadow of the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel? What does the wrongness of Eichmann’s readers reveal about the rightness of its arguments?
  • Lynda Barry on drawing and storytelling: “People think if you’re writing a story that you have to follow story structure … it’s like thinking the only reason we have teeth is because there are dentists.”