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Books–The Size of Thoughts, by Nicholson Baker January 27, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, literature, Other.

I think that it was Bokonon (pronounced “Johnson”), the Zen-guru-rebel of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle who said “Strange travel suggestions are like dancing lessons from God,” or something like that.  I can’t recall, or even summon the strength to look it up right now.  Regardless, I have always felt that if somebody liked a book enough to suggest that I read it, with all of the baggage that such a suggestion entails (five seconds later, for example, thinking to ones-self “Oh, no.  She’s going to think that I’m a pervert for liking that,” or “Uh, oh.  Now he’s going to be able to read my mind) I should heed their suggestion. 

Some time ago davidbdale urged me to read this collection of essays and stuff by Nicholson Baker.  And I immediately bought the book.  As soon as it came in the mail I dove in.  And I have not yet finished.  I might never finish, because I might start it again as soon as I do.  There is a lot of interesting stuff here, and stuff that has the same relentless, almost exhaustingly detailed prose for which I idolize David Foster Wallace (unless I’m not interested in the subject, and then I get bored, of course).  I am currently bogged down in a book review Baker wrote about the first volume of J.E. Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Baker’s subject matter is hard to resist. Other essays discuss nail clippers, cinematic projection equipment, books, and plastic models, among other things.  I’m enjoying it immensely, but I can’t imagine reviewing a book like this.  All the essays I have thus far read were engaging and interesting.  I learned a lot about things that I had no idea I would ever learn, or even be interested in, for that matter. 

My personal favorite so far has been the chapter on plastic models.  Baker has odd ideas about plastic models, seeming to like them best before he takes them out of the box and begins to put them together.  This leads him to rhapsodize about plastic extrusion techniques and, finally, to assert that the ultimate model project would be a scale replica of an old Cincinnati Milacron injection molding machine.  A bit self-referential, I think, but even so, I couldn’t agree more.

I work at a University that has, arguably, the best plastics engineering program in the country, if not the world.  But we have, alas, only the most up-to-date equipment.  No old Cincinnati Milacron, as big as a freight train engine.  So I offer instead a picture of the Battenfeld Gloucester Thin Film Extruder (below, click to enlarge). 


The lights were out (no students were making garbage bags that day) and I didn’t want to bother the hardworking faculty of the Plastics Engineering Department, so I snapped this from the hallway.  Despite the quality, you can see that she’s a beauty (it is convention, like with ships, to refer to these with a feminine pronoun.  In this case, however, you can see from the picture that she actually is a female.)

What a model.  And who wouldn’t want to build a replica in their own home?


1. davidbdale - February 16, 2007

This is a book of which I always try to keep a spare copy to lend, because I so often find myself in conversations with readers who take an interest not in the things, so much, the nail clippers and film projectors, but in the methods of their making and their use, the metaphors they recommend, the lessons they teach about what we value and the simple mysteries of how things are done, so I’m forever giving my copy away and needing to replace it. I’m glad there were two more copies in the world for you and your brother, and gratified, but not surprised, that you were right for this book.

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