On Tuesday, January 21, writer Nicholson Baker sat down with students, faculty and friends of MA Critical Theory and the Arts to discuss his work. The group had recently read Baker’s Human Smoke (2008), a compilation of quotes, facts and diaristic reflections sifted from his extensive research into events
leading to World War II. Baker discussed the impetus for his dedication to the subject about which he had previously known little. “I spent my life avoiding painful reading,” he offered. “I don’t even like murder mysteries.” Despite his expressed aversion to confronting unsettling material, Baker’s fondness for archival documentation—he shared with the group photos from the newspaper collection he rescued from potential destruction—exposes his penchant for recorded history.
The three-and-a-half hour roundtable also illuminated the creative impulses in Baker’s work. It became clear that his attention to detail is one of an artistic mind. He described following a puff of his breath as it disturbed a mobile (made by his wife) hanging over his daughter’s crib—he immediately felt a novel bound up in that moment and subsequently wrote Room Temperature (1990). “Nicholson Baker’s work seems to me a prodigious achievement,” says MA Critical Theory and the Arts Chair Robert Hullot-Kentor. “For those willing to turn the pages, as Wallace Stevens might have said, the light of his imagination constantly becomes a light in the many minds—and it is my good fortune to be able to thank him for that on the part of the many people who might wish to have the moment to thank him for his work.”
Baker is one of a number of artists, writers, historians and thinkers invited to visit MA Critical Theory and the Arts during the academic year. Fall 2013 visitors included Paul Chan, Eric Foner, Michael Katz, Ira Katznelson, Stefan Litwin and Sven Lutticken, among others.