What is Human Smoke?

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.

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10 thoughts on “What is Human Smoke?

  1. If the book is being misunderstood, then it's Baker's fault for writing it like a sort of performance art instead of like a history.

    I think that's a good analogy, actually, because it's intended to shock, and the artist assumes that the audience will come to the same radical conclusion they did instead of actually making a coherent statement.

  2. Post author

    Yes, that may be a good analogy. A sort of agitprop. But I don't know that I agree that it's Baker's 'fault'. The very fact that the form of the book is so unconventional for a work of history should tip us off that it's not in fact history, shouldn't it? -- any more than Guernica is a literal depiction of the air raid on the town of the same name. And he has made it clear that he's rejecting (or at least avoiding) the normal modes of historical inquiry:

    It helps sometimes to look at an action--compassionate, murderous, confessional, obfuscatory--out of context: as something that somebody did one day. The one-day-ness of history is often lost in traditional histories, because paragraphs and sections are organized by theme: attack, counterattack, argument, counterargument. That's a reasonable way to proceed, but I rejected it here for several reasons. First, because it fails to convey the hugeness and confusion of the time as it was experienced by people who lived through it. And, second, because I wanted the reader to have to form, and then jettison, and then re-form, explanations and mini-narratives along the way--as I did, and as did a newspaper reader in, say, New York City in September, 1941.

    I suppose the question is, what is Human Smoke doing in the history section of bookshops at all? Art Spiegelman's Maus isn't usually to be found there, though it arguably should be ...

    Having said that, if historians are asked to review such a book, of course they are going to critique its view of history!

  3. Anything about the past, in prose, is "History" as far as the general audience is concerned. In this case, it's a primary-source based work, which makes it even more appropriate, which appears to be attempting to revise our understanding of events by deconstructing them. Nothing terribly original about that.

    The description you quote is very revealing: the idea that the original readers of these articles had no context for them, that they didn't organize their experiences in some meaningful fashion, is fairly absurd, bordering on the misanthropic. The assumption that all articles carried equal weight, that the juxtapositions he sees make any sense to a contemporary reader, are just unsustainable without context.

    I love raw primary materials -- use them all the time in teaching and writing -- but selection itself is a form of argument, distortion.

  4. Post author

    I love raw primary materials — use them all the time in teaching and writing — but selection itself is a form of argument, distortion.

    Of course it is, but who is saying otherwise? I don't see that Baker has anywhere claimed to have written history as it really was. The opposite, in fact, judging by the Amazon interview I linked to above. As a novelist one would hope that he doesn't need historians to teach him about the concept of subjectivity! :)

    I just think the book sounds a whole lot more interesting if it's about media reception, than if it's about "the origins of the Second World War" which is what I did think when I originally looked at it and rolled my eyes at it. It's probably still not very good even on that basis. But I'm not going to defend a book I haven't actually read (or even re-flipped through since writing the post) any longer! If you haven't already, I do recommend that you read Paul's posts -- they're very interesting and I likely haven't done justice to his argument here.

  5. JAIME

    Well, here ’spare’ would mean that I can’t think of a book I’d rather spend the money on :)

    There's always the local library - that's how I intend to read it. Of course, time is as at much of a premium as $$ for me.

    (BTW - love the blog)

  6. Post author

    True ... but I tend to be of the opinion that any book worth reading is a book worth owning! Though admittedly I've had to compromise over the last couple of years as the number of books I have to read has gone up and my disposable income has gone down ...

  7. Once we become conscious of something, we see it everywhere. I'd not heard of this book until reading this blog, then I saw a review in a magazine, then in the newspaper ... and the reviews were both positive, along the lines of [paraphrase] "an interesting new twist".

    More than that, I followed JAIME's advice and went to my library. I'm 5th in the reserve line! In the absence of this blog I might have encountered an interesting new twist in high demand. Hmmmm.

    I know, I know .... populism vs historical balance ... always a tough one.

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