The 14th Military History Carnival is up at Investigations of a Dog. It's a big one! I direct readers' attention particularly to a series of posts by Paul Brewer at The War Reading Room: here, here, here, here, here, and here. The subject is a new book by Nicholson Baker called Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, which has been reviewed widely and panned roundly, at least by historians. Baker's subject is the origins of the Second World War and his approach is to quote and juxtapose contemporary newspaper and magazine articles. I haven't read it, but have flicked through it in the bookshop and can understand why reviews have been negative. The extracts are presented with little or no context and are arranged in such a way as to imply close causal connections between events which would seem to have little to do with each other, and it's all wrapped up in an irritatingly portentous tone. I didn't buy it, can you tell?
But while he doesn't excuse Baker's 'dishonest history', Paul argues that most reviewers (the historian ones, at least) seem not to have understood the point of Human Smoke. It's not a history as such, nor an argument that the Second World War was not a good/just/necessary war (though I think Baker is sympathetic to such views). After all, Baker is a novelist, not an historian (or journalist). Instead, it's an attempt to understand how an American observer of world events in the 1930s and early 1940s might arrive at a pacifist-isolationist position:
We experience an event, such as the ongoing War in Iraq, in a piecemeal form, filtered by two editors - one is located at our source of information, whether radio or newspaper in 1939, and the other is our own selection of what to pay close attention to. Baker's book shows us how one reader might have perceived the oncoming war and decided that the cost of fighting it might not have been worth it.
If that's right, it sounds more interesting than I originally thought; and in a way it's not too far from some of my own work. I make pretty heavy use of newspapers in one of my chapters to show what the average person on the street was being told about the dangers of bombing, though I'm not restricting myself to only one political vantage point, nor (I hope!) conflating unrelated events in a naive way. In any event, thanks to Paul's posts I may reconsider my decision not to buy Human Smoke. If I ever have a spare $35 lying around, anyway.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://airminded.org/copyright/.