Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker

Fiction and non-fiction writer Nicholson Baker, whose wide-ranging, exploratory intellect towers over most of his peers in both fields, has just written the most controversial book of his career, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Since Baker’s career already includes industry-changing attacks on the destructive practices of library archivists, a novel about phone sex that figured in the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, a novel about a frustrated American who very badly wanted to assassinate President George W. Bush, an intentionally goofy study of John Updike that breaks every rule of serious literary criticism, and a charming debut novel about a man riding an escalator in his office building, this makes Human Smoke very controversial indeed.

Baker’s thick book, a chronological log of historical snippets ending in 1941, attacks our cherished myths about World War II as a “good war”, and presents much evidence that this war’s most incredible horrors could have been avoided if America and Great Britain had not chosen to take advantage of Nazi Germany’s foolish military strategy by turning Hitler’s inevitable defeat into their own plan for economic and military domination of Western Europe and the Pacific Rim.

Human Smoke is not a fun book. It could not be further from the pleasures of The Mezzanine or the sweet Room Temparature. I hope the critical discussion that follows will be an intelligent one. So far, Commentary doesn’t think much of the book, but Mark Kurlansky in the L. A. Times considers it important.

I was glad to have the opportunity to discuss Human Smoke in a roundtable organized by Ed Champion for his Filthy Habits blog. The first of five installments is now up, and you can read my first impressions as well as those of others here.

I hope the myth-shattering aspects of this book — Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt come off very badly, for instance — do not distract readers from Baker’s more positive suggestion that the much-mocked philosophy of pacifism, as embodied by Mahatma Gandhi and many other hardworking activists of the pre-World-War-II era, may still offer the world hope for its future.

I agree with this message, and I am very impressed with Nicholson Baker’s bravery in writing this unusual book.

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A couple of other notes. The talented blogger Maud Newton’s site has been unconscionably hacked by pharmaceutical spammers, and all her posts deleted. Fortunately, she was able to restore everything, but relying on a hosting service’s backup tapes to preserve a site of this stature is too close for comfort. I’d like to urge all bloggers to practice self-reliance: create your own backup CDs or DVDs of your SQL databases, preferably using the simple “mysqldump” utility or any other form of SQL backup. A hosting service’s backup facility is not usually guaranteed in a hosting contract’s terms of service, and even if it were, the hosting service can only be held financially responsible for the cost of the service, not the (often much greater) value of the content. Bloggers: backup thyselves.

What with the inhuman horrors of World War II and the aggravating injustice of spammers deleting valuable content, I find some meaning in this very short movie, “Dimwit Daryl Meets Vexed Volcano”, by my younger daughter Abby, who has just discovered that she can create her own animated GIFs. Like the vagaries of life itself, this animation loops forever.

11 Responses

  1. Boy were the pleasures of The
    Boy were the pleasures of The Mezzanine not for me, so maybe this one will be.

    Speaking of Roosevelt and completely off topic, conservative intellectual (Ha!) and baseball fan George Will wrote an article about Cuba over the weekend that began with a letter from a young Castro to FDR.

    “THE LETTER from a 12-year-old to “my good friend Roosvelt” is dated Nov. 6, 1940, one day after FDR won a third term. Saying he is “very happy” FDR won, he adds: “If you like, give me a ten dollars bill green american.” The letter, an enlarged copy of which is on display in the National Archives, ends: “Good by. Your friend, Fidel Castro.””

    He proceeds to allude to Castro’s entire regime as a child “with his hand out,” but political ideas aside, I found the first part very interesting. 10 dollars bill green American… A very aspirational young man.

    Article link

  2. There is one obvious
    There is one obvious explanation why US waited for Europe to be destroyed before entering WWII – the prospect of emerging as the new world power once the colonial empires were vanquished.

    There is one explanation why Russia was allowed to steal half of Europe after the war – to make sure there’d be no further wars. The whole thing split up between US & Rus. An evil arrangement to be sure, but it worked.

    I’m happy someone has finally brought this subject to light. Usually it’s so sickening to hear how this one particular nation, America, is so much more altruistic and noble than any and all others. It defies reason.

    Yeah…yer soldiers died for Goodyear rubber, Standard Oil, and Kaiser aluminum; coulda stopped Hitler in ’35 with minimal loss of life. But…that wasn’t the plan.

  3. Reason me this, oh yes,
    Reason me this, oh yes, Churchill saw Ghandi as the more evil and threatening than the Nazis and the evil anti-semite war monger Roosevelt instigated WWII just for blood lust evil kicks.

    This new knowledge fascinates me, tell us again how sheep bladder can predict earthquakes.

  4. I’m excited to read the new
    I’m excited to read the new Nicholson Baker. Any attempt to puncture the “cherished myths about World War II as a “good war”” have to be worth engaging with. No war is a good war. Period. All wars kill ordinary citizens and augment Power…

    Of course, the view that WWII wasn’t just some kind-hearted act by UKUS to battle NastyNazism has a long history itself, but it has been a while since it was aired in the mainstream. Lets hope Simon&Schuster can get a copy to me quickly!

  5. Levi:
    Really enjoyed the

    Really enjoyed the rountable at Ed’s. However, a correction. You write:

    “It’s also very clear from Shirer’s book that Hitler did not want war with France and England. He and the other top Nazi leaders saw correctly that Germany’s only chance was to pull off a diplomatic finesse (as they had done before) to keep England from unleashing its full strength against him.”

    The choice of “England” to designate Britain (and by extension, the British Commonwealth, including its colonies and Commonwealth allies at the time) is problematical. There’s no love lost between the English and the Scottish, for example, yet the Scots are very much part of any war Britain choses to wage.

    For sovereign countries like Canada, New Zealand, Australia and (at that time) South Africa, as well as parts of the British Empire such as India, describing the “full strength” of Britain as being what Hitler was afraid of is a severe discounting of the really pivotal role that powers such as the aforementioned played in preventing the British Isles from falling during 1940. I’m Canadian myself, and that in itself doesn’t make me an expert on Canada’s role in WW II, but my understanding, because I have a strong interest in this period, is Canadian convoys played an absolutely essential role in supplying Britain with both food and material. As well, all the countries allied with Britain supplied her with troops. The US was also supplying Britain with material during this time, and obviously the US contribution was huge. But it wasn’t in the fight at that point, and it would have been Commonwealth/colonial troops who would have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the British if the Germans had invaded the UK, not US army divisions.

    I don’t mean to sound touchy. However, over the years I’ve read quite a bit on the period and, because of writing I’m now doing, am doing even more reading these days. It’s common — in fact, overwhelmingly the case — that emotion-laden phrases about Britain/England “standing alone” are used in books. And this is in the *history texts*. The influence of mass culture has had an even greater influence on the air-brushing out of “secondary” powers, so WWII tends to be seen as much through a haze of the sentimental nationalism of the stronger powers as it is a historical event/series of events.

  6. That’s very interesting,
    That’s very interesting, Finn, and you’re right that I was not aware of Canada’s contribution at all. I will be more aware of this in the future, though.

  7. Dear Levi Asher,
    Thanks for

    Dear Levi Asher,
    Thanks for leading me to the discussion about Human Smoke and for your balanced commentary.

  8. WW II was “good” in the way
    WW II was “good” in the way WW I was “Great” – as in “just and necessary” but not “wonderful”. But even that naughty old warhorse GEN Patton was disgusted by it. Nicholson Baker’s book does a grave disservice to the millions of Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines of all Allied powers who sacrificed their lives to defeat meglomaniacs like Hitler, Japanese Militarists. It is even more insulting to the tens of millions of innocents exterminated by the Nazis and the Japanese military. The British and French bent over backwards to have peace – at any cost. This included allowing the Nazis to seize territories Germany lost in WW I, Austria, and later Czechoslovakia. British Prime Minister Chamberlain, who orchestrated the foolishness, was the one who declared war. The Brits turned to Churchill because they had no faith in him. And if you’ve ever actually read any history, the Brits in both parties thought pretty much about Churchill what leftists think of Bush (though Churchill was blessedly more articulate). As far as America, and France “wanting” a war, this was a joke. Not a single one of them was in any way prepared for a war. America in 1939 could probably field 30,000 capable Soldiers to Hitler’s 3,000,000,000. And because of vicious military budget cuts, many American Soldiers trained with brooms. That’s as logical as Britney Spears wanting to pick a fight with Mike Tyson. To be balanced, Germany wasn’t as well prepared to fight as Hitler wanted. But that’s why Hitler wanted to fight England and France later. FDR knew this, which is why he struggled to get involved because sooner was better than later. I’ve no problems with pacifists that actually have morale courage and intelligence. Gandhi genuinely knew that behind Britain’s snobbishness and imperialistic posturing lurked a nation with character and decency. But if he’d had to deal with Hitler, he’d be ashes. If I had my way I’d have Baker sentenced to read the several million documents left by the Waffen SS detailing the entirety of their crimes.

  9. Eric, I appreciate your
    Eric, I appreciate your feedback (though I see it differently) … but I am confused why you seem to be stating that Hitler had 3 billion capable soldiers. 3 billion? I know you mean your comments to be taken seriously, so I assume that is either a gross exaggeration or a typo.

  10. The chronology of World War 2
    The chronology of World War 2 is important and often absent in many people’s understanding and knowledge of the war.

    Eric sentencing Baker to read the documents of the SS detailing their crimes isn’t relevant to the argument Baker makes as well as to the chronology of world war 2.

    A main argument in Human Smoke is that those crimes by the Waffen SS might not have happened if Germany had not been forced into its isolated and pressured position by Britain and America. If Britain had come to terms with Germany and the two countries were at least on speaking terms, would it not have led the Nazi’s to use more restraint in their treatment of the “undesireables” or the Russians later on the Eastern Front?

    It is easy to force people into situations and then pretend to be a saint. If police were to intice or harass bank robbers to such an extent that they start killing their hostages, would the police then not be reprimanded at least? Yet despite all the terrible things done by the allies, (I mean, Churchill forcing the Blitz on to his own country? That is horrific!) they are hailed as if they were Christ.

    Despite what the necessary action would have been, whether Germany was right or wrong(chronologically speaking), it is only appropriate that the full story should be explained in school history and made common knowledge and the Allies receive their fair share of the bashing. Never mind World War 1 and the fact that Germany was completely raped by the other world powers, who have to this day, not apologized for what they had done and for all they had stolen from Germany.

    An unfortunate fact about Churchill: In the Boer wars in South Africa which were fought during the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century, The British, in desperation, murdered 28000 boer women and children in concentration camps, scorched all their farms and killed all their cattle in order to force the small Boer army to surrender its precious country and home to British rule. Churchill, as a journalist(reporter) and war correspondent in South Africa during the Boer Wars, reported that those means taken by the British army were absolutely “neccesary”. For Churchill neccesary meant an orgy of slaughter and now the man is praised as a saint.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!