Novelist, keeps car stocked with books

Nicholson Baker

pat wellenbach/ap photo

Nicholson Baker has proven he’s fearless when it comes to the written word — with his own innovative books and by saving the historic newspaper collection of the British Library from destruction by buying it. The writer reads from his newest novel, “Traveling Sprinkler,” at 7 p.m. Sept. 23 at Brookline Booksmith.

BOOKS: Do you miss the newspaper collection since you donated it to Duke University?

BAKER: I miss it all the time. It stood for the totality of the unreadable. To stand in those rooms, which were the size of three tennis courts, filled with those newspapers and just know there was no way I could read one ten-thousandths of it was a powerful lesson for me.


BOOKS: How did you avoid becoming overwhelmed?

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BAKER: When they first arrived, they weren’t sorted and that was overwhelming. Once volunteers sorted them by title and year you could walk down a long row of stacks and decide, I’m interested in 1923, and just pull a volume open. It scrambled my mind, confused me in a helpful way.

BOOKS: What’s your reading like now?

BAKER: I go around with a bunch of books in the back seat of my car, such as Nabokov stories and his memoir “Speak, Memory,” some of John Updike’s essays, and essays by Christopher Morley. There’s a small group of books that travel around with me in life.

BOOKS: How many books do you typically have in the back seat?


BAKER: The high watermark was when I was working on my World War II book, “Human Smoke.” I had about 100 books in the back, enough that it took longer to come to a stop at a stoplight.

BOOKS: How long have you been keeping books in the back seat?

BAKER: About 10 years. I stopped working in my office a long time ago. I made little nests around the house. Then I wrote for a while in the barn. Then I turned my car into my office. A car is a great place to write and read, especially in a shady spot. Cars are private and quiet. The driver’s seat is the most comfortable chair I know.

BOOKS: Do you change the books?

BAKER: It depends on what I’m writing. For a nonfiction piece, it’s good to read nonfiction with a lot of skill, such as the beautiful memoir “Father and Son” by Edmund Gosse. It’s about his life in a restrictive religious family. He learned to read novels by reading torn up pages of a book plastered on the inside of a trunk.


BOOKS: What was in the back seat for your last book?

BAKER: I had lots of poetry, such as Howard Moss’s collected poems, and biographies of poets, such as William Drake’s of Sara Teasdale, as well as Debussy’s letters. Debussy’s got a very good, crisp way of saying sad things that survive even in English. They remind me that life is big. I also had “The Last Romantic,” an oral history by poet John Hall Wheelock who worked as an editor at Scribner’s. His memoir is about some of the depressive, disturbed poets he knew.

BOOKS: Do you keep up with contemporary fiction?

BAKER: I feel that if everyone is reading a certain book then that job is being done. It feels like a better use of time to read something that is underappreciated or unknown, like an oral history. I do like comic novels like “Don’t Point That Thing at Me” by Kyril Bonfiglioli. He’s like PG Wodehouse but a little darker. I love to start mysteries, like Agatha Christie’s, but then stop. I’m a recursive reader as opposed to somebody who goes methodically through a book.

BOOKS: When someone asks you what you are reading, can you answer that?

BAKER: I guess the truest answer is that I’m reading the memoir “Let Me Finish” by Roger Angell, my editor at the New Yorker, but let me see what else is in the back seat. “Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events,” Murray Kempton’s collection of essays,and “Treasure Island!!!” by Sara Levine. I have a hard time with that question. I never answer it very well.

Amy Sutherland

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