The size of thoughts, p.1
The Size of Thoughts,
Acclaim for NICHOLSON BAKER’S
The Size of Thoughts
“A trove of treasures large and small—opulent … ingenious.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“There are extravagant delights here.… It’s as if S. J. Perelman had been put in charge of the whole Humanities syllabus.”
—The New York Review of Books
“Whole bushel baskets of perceptions, engaging and quirky, each and all.… A fine, surprising, pungent, playful and thought-provoking bouquet of a book.”
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Baker is an utterly idiosyncratic, artistically adventurous, passionately intellectual writer.… He notices things that no one else notices, and he articulates what he notices extraordinarily well. He writes heart-stopping sentences and he’s hilarious—what more are we supposed to ask for?”
“Always funny.… Baker’s talent can turn not only dross but actual deadwood into gold.”
Books by NICHOLSON BAKER
U and I
The Size of Thoughts
The Size of Thoughts
Nicholson Baker was born in 1957 and attended the Eastman School of Music and Haverford College. He is the author of four novels—The Mezzanine (1988), Room Temperature (1990), Vox (1992), and The Fermata (1994)—and one work of nonfiction, U and I (1991), in addition to The Size of Thoughts. His essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Review of Books, Esquire, and The Best American Essays. He is married with two children.
FIRST VINTAGE BOOKS EDITION, MARCH 1997
Copyright © 1982, 1983, 1984, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 by Nicholson Baker
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover by Random House, Inc., New York, in 1996.
The following pieces were first published in periodicals: “Changes of Mind,” “The Size of Thoughts,” and “Rarity” in The Atlantic Monthly; “Ice Storm,” “Reading Aloud,” “The Projector,” “Discards,” “Clip Art,” and “Books as Furniture” in The New Yorker; “The History of Punctuation” and “Leading with the Grumper” in The New York Review of Books; “Model Airplanes” and “The Northern Pedestal” in Esquire; and “A Novel by Alan Hollinghurst” in The London Review of Books.
The illustrations on this page and this page are copyright © 1994 by Mark Zingarelli.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the Random House edition as follows:
The size of thoughts : essays and other lumber / Nicholson Baker—1st ed.
Random House Web address: http://www.randomhouse.com/
For my sister, Rachel
Other Books by This Author
About the Author
Changes of Mind
The Size of Thoughts
The History of Punctuation
A Novel by Alan Hollinghurst
Leading with the Grumper
The Northern Pedestal
Books as Furniture
Changes of Mind
If your life is like my life, there are within it brief stretches, usually a week to ten days long, when your mind achieves a polished and freestanding coherence. The chanting tape-loops of poetry anthologies, the crumbly pieces of philosophy, the unsmelted barbarisms, the litter torn from huge collisions of abandoned theories—all this nomadic sub-orbital junk suddenly, like a milling street crowd in a movie-musical, re-forms itself into a proud, pinstriped, top-hatted commonwealth. Your opinions become neat and un-ruffleable. Every new toy design, every abuse of privilege or gesture of philanthropy, every witnessed squabble at the supermarket checkout counter, is smoothly remade into evidence for five or six sociological truths. Puffed up enough to be charitable, you stop urging your point with twisting jabs of your fork; you happily concede winnable arguments to avoid injuring the feelings of your friends; your stock of proverbs from Samuel Johnson seems elegant and apt in every context; you are firm, you think fast, you offer delicately phrased advice.
Then one Thursday, out on a minor errand, you inexplicably come to a new conclusion (“Keynesian economics is spent”), and it—like the fetching plastic egg that cruel experimenters have discovered will cause a mother bird to thrust her own warm, speckled ones from the nest—upsets your equilibrium. The community of convictions flies apart, you sense unguessed contradictions, there are disavowals, frictions, second thoughts, pleas for further study; you stare in renewed perplexity out the laundromat’s plate-glass window, while your pulped library card dries in a tumbling shirt pocket behind you.
Such alert intermissions happen only infrequently: most of the time we are in some inconclusive phase of changing our minds about many, if not all, things. We have no choice. Our opinions, gently nudged by circumstance, revise themselves under cover of inattention. We tell them, in a steady voice, No, I’m not interested in a change at present. But there is no stopping opinions. They don’t care about whether we want to hold them or not; they do what they have to do.
And graver still, we are sometimes only minimally aware of just which new beliefs we have adopted. If one of the wire services were able to supply each subscriber with a Personal Opinion Printout, delivered with the paper every morning, it would be a real help: then we could monitor our feelings about Pre-Raphaelite furniture, or the influences of urbanization on politeness, or the wearing of sunglasses indoors, or the effect of tort language on traditions of trust, as we adjusted our thoughts about them week by week, the way we keep an eye on lightly traded over-the-counter stocks. Instead, we stride into a discussion with our squads of unexamined opinions innocently at our heels—and, discovering that, yes, we do feel strongly about water-table rights, or unmanned space exploration, or the harvesting of undersea sponges, say, we grab the relevant opinion and, without dress rehearsals, fling it out into audibility (“Fly, you mother”), only to discover, seconds later, its radical inadequacy.
Let me now share with you something about which I changed my mind. Once I was riding the bus between New York City and Rochester. At the Binghamton stop, the driver noticed a shoe sitting on the ledge below the front windshield. The sight of it bothered him. He held it up to us and said, “Is this anybody’s?” There was no response, so he left the bus for a moment and threw the shoe in a nearby trash can. We drove on toward Rochester. Idle, I became caught up in a little plan to furnish my future apartment: I would buy yellow forklifts and orange backhoes, rows of them, upholstered so that my guests might sit
Since that bus trip, five years ago, I find that, without my knowledge, I have changed my mind. I no longer want to live in an apartment furnished with forklifts and backhoes. Somewhere I jettisoned that interest as irrevocably as the bus driver tossed out the strange sad man’s right shoe. Yet I did not experience during the intervening time a single uncertainty or pensive moment in regard to a backhoe. Five years of walking around cities, flipping through seed catalogs, and saying “Oho!” to statements I disagreed with—the effect of which has been to leave me with a disinclination to apply heavy machinery to interior design.
Multiply this example by a thousand, a hundred thousand, unannounced reversals: a mad flux is splashing around the pilings of our personalities. For a while I tried to make home movies of my opinions in their native element, undisturbed, as they grazed and romped in fields of inquiry, gradually altering in emphasis and coloration, mating, burrowing, and dying, like prairie dogs, but the presence of my camera made their behavior stilted and self-conscious—which brings us to what I can’t help thinking is a relevant point about the passage of time. Changes of mind should be distinguished from decisions, for decisions seem to reside pertly in the present, while changes of mind imply habits of thought, a slow settling-out of truth, a partially felt, dense past. I may decide, for instance, that when I take off my pants I should not leave them draped over the loudspeakers, as I normally do, but contrive to suspend them on some sort of hook or hanger. I may decide to ask that person sitting across from me at the table to refrain from ripping out the spongy inside of her dinner roll and working it into small balls between her palms. We are bound to make lots of such future-directed choices: they are the reason for risk-benefit analysis. But at the same time, on the outskirts of our attention, hosts of gray-eyed, bright-speared opinions have been rustling, shifting, skirmishing. “What I think about Piaget” is out there, growing wiser, moodier, more cynical, along with some sort of answer to “What constitutes a virtuous life?” Unless I am being unusually calculating, I don’t decide to befriend someone, and it is the same way with a conviction: I slowly come to enjoy its company, to respect its counsel, to depend on it for reassurance; I find myself ignoring its weaknesses or excesses—and if the friendship later ends, it is probably owing not to a sudden rift, but to a barnacling-over of nearly insignificant complaints.
Seldom, then, will any single argument change our minds about anything really interesting or important. In fact, reasoning and argument count for surprisingly little in the alluvial triumph of a thought—no more than 12 to 15 percent. Those reasons we do cite are often only a last flourish of bright plumage, a bit of ceremony to commemorate the result of a rabblement of tendencies too cross-purposed to recapitulate. A haphazard flare of memory; an irrelevant grief; an anecdote in the newspaper; a turn of conversation that stings into motion a tiny doubt: from such incessant percussions the rational soul reorganizes itself—we change our minds as we change our character. Years go by and the movement remains unrecognized: “I wasn’t aware of it, but my whole feeling about car-pool lanes (or planned communities, or slippery-slope arguments, or rhyme, or Shostakovich, or whether things are getting better or worse) was undergoing a major overhaul back then.” We must not overlook sudden conversions and wrenching insights, but usually we fasten on to these only in hindsight, and exaggerate them for the sake of narrative—a tool perfected by the great nineteenth-century novelists, who sit their heroines down and have them deduce the intolerability of their situation in one unhappy night, as the fire burns itself into embers in the grate.
Consider “whether things are getting better or worse” at closer range. Impossibly vague and huge as it is, most of us nonetheless believe it to be a question that merits a periodical self-harvest of opinion. Here are some of the marginally rational things that from one season to the next may contribute to my feelings concerning progress: There is more static in long-distance calls than there was a while ago. The Wonder Bread concrete they now use for sidewalks is a real step down from the darker, pebblier substance they used to use, and that in turn was a decline from the undulant slabs of weathered blue slate, thrust into gradients and peaks by the roots of a nearby tree, that were on my street as a child. Progresso artichoke hearts frequently have sharp, thistly pieces left on them now, as they never used to. When I tip the paper boy these days, he doesn’t say thank you. Cemetery statues suffer increasing vandalism. On the other hand, there is Teflon II. Reflective street signs. The wah-wah pedal. Free libraries for everyone. Central heating. Fire codes. Federal Express. Stevie Wonder. Vladimir Nabokov. Lake Ontario is cleaner. My friends like my new blue coat. Somehow the mind arrives at a moving weighted average of these apples and oranges.
Occasionally a change of mind follows alternate routes. One belief, about which initially I would admit of no doubt, gradually came to seem more porous and intricate in its structure, but instead of moderating my opinion correspondingly, and conceding the justice of several objections, I simply lost interest in it, and now I nod absently if the topic comes up over lunch. Another time a cherished opinion weakened as I became too familiar with the three examples that advocates used over and over to support it. Under the glare of this repetition, the secondary details, the richer underthrumming of the opinion, faded; I seemed to have held it once too often; I tried but failed to find the rhetorical or figurative twist that would revive it for me. I crept insensibly toward the opposing view.
How is it that whole cultures and civilizations can change their “minds” in ways that seem so susceptible to synoptic explanation? From the distance of the historian of ideas, things blur nicely: one sees a dogma and its vocabulary seeping from discipline to disciplines, from class to class; if you squint away specificity you can make out splinter groups, groundswells of opposition, rival and revival schools of thought. The smoothness and sweep is breathtaking; the metaphors are all ready-made.
But when I am at the laundromat, trying to reconstitute for myself the collaboration of influences, disgusts, mistakes, and passions that swept me toward a simple change of heart about forklifts, the variables press in, description stammers and drowns in detail, and imagination hops up and down on one shoe to little purpose. I consult more successful attempts by the major intellectual autobiographers—Saint Augustine, Gibbon, Mill, Newman, and men of similar kidney—but even their brilliant accounts fail to satisfy: I don’t want the story of the feared-but-loved teacher, the book that hit like a thunderclap, the years of severe study followed by a visionary breakdown, the clench of repentance; I want each sequential change of mind in its true, knotted, clotted, viny multifariousness, with all of the colorful streamers of intelligence still taped on and flapping in the wind.
The Size of Thoughts
Each thought has a size, and most are about three feet tall, with the level of complexity of a lawnmower engine, or a cigarette lighter, or those tubes of toothpaste that, by mingling several hidden pastes and gels, create a pleasantly striped product. Once in a while, a thought may come up that seems, in its woolly, ranked composure, roughly the size of one’s hall closet. But a really large thought, a thought in the presence of which whole urban centers would rise to their feet, and cry out with expressions of gratefulness and kinship; a thought with grandeur, and drenching, barrel-scorning cataracts, and detonations of fist-clenched hope, and hundreds of cellos; a thought that can tear phone books in half, and rap on the iron nodes of experience until every blue girder rings; a thought that may one day pack everything noble and good into its briefcase, elbow past the curators of purposelessne
I have wanted for so long to own and maintain even a few huge, interlocking thoughts that, having exhausted more legitimate methods, I have recently resorted to theoretical speculation. Would it be possible to list those features that, taken together, confer upon a thought a lofty magnificence? What makes them so very large? My idle corollary hope is that perhaps a systematic and rigorous codification, on the model of Hammurabi’s or Napoleon’s, might make large thoughts available cheap, and in bulk, to the general public, thereby salvaging the nineteenth-century dream of a liberal democracy. But mainly I am hoping that once I can coax from large thoughts the rich impulses of their power, I will be able to think them in solitude, evening after evening, walking in little circles on the carpet with my arms outspread.
In my first attempt to find an objective measure for the size of thoughts, I theorized (as most of us have at one time or another) that I had only to mount the narrow stairs to my attic, stand in the hypotenuse of sunlight that passed through the window there in midwinter, and, concentrating, punch the thought in question once firmly, as if it were a pillow. The total number of tiny golden dust-monads that puffed forth from the thought’s shocked stuffing would indicate, I believed, its eternal, essential size.
I found this to be a crude technique, and rejected it. Next, influenced by Sir John Eccles, the neurophysiologist, who used the axon of the giant-squid neuron to arrive at truths about the chemistry of human nerve fibers (small truths, needless to say: all scientific truths are small), I cast about for a suitably large thought existing in a form compact enough for me to experiment on it intensively. I tried a line of Wordsworth’s,