As the Iraq War and the larger battle between jihadism and the West drag on, there may be no better time to pick up the novelist Nicholson Baker’s fascinating popular history Human Smoke (available 3/11). By cherry-picking news accounts, speeches, and memoirs from 1892 to 1941, Baker upends the prevailing understanding of the run-up to World War II.
Baker questions the necessity of WWII (and all wars) by portraying the key good guys in a viciously harsh light — in his depiction, Winston Churchill wasn’t a grand heroic figure at all, and he and FDR were the original bring-it-on cowboys, who forced needless suffering on millions of European civilians. A Gandhian pacifism, Baker suggests, would have been the correct response to the Third Reich.
Beyond its profoundly revisionist central arguments, Human Smoke pioneers a fresh mode of serious nonfiction: It consists of hundreds of freestanding information nuggets arranged in strictly chronological order, chosen carefully (and tendentiously) to make his argument but nearly all written in a flat, “objective” voice. The result is a weird hybrid — at once very easy to read and very hard to digest.
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