Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker – review

Baker’s Human Smoke is an enthralling, sprawling montage of events that led up to the United States’ official involvement in WWII. It actually goes just past that, rounding out on Dec. 31, 1941, but it really only makes sense to end it on the last day of the year, with the United State’ entry into the war coming so shortly before it. The wonderful thing about this book is that I felt like an idiot while reading it.  Baker sets the book up to read in short burts, often less than a page or even half a page in length. He will jump from one person’s account of living in the early stages of the Nazi regime in Germany and then jump to the Quakers lobbying FDR to allow them to send food and assistance to people recently put beneath the Nazi boot heels. Baker does a remarkable job of weaving numerous histories together into a satisfying whole that is impossible to move away from for long.

My feeling like an idiot happened on average in about one in five of these vignettes. While Hitler&Co. clearly had a thing against the Jews, the rest of the prominent world leaders weren’t exactly friendly.  The impression  I have always gotten of history is that the Nazis quickly rose to power, then began massacring the Jews and there wasn’t a whole lot that could have been done. That this genocide was almost predestined and just had to happen. Instead, there were numerous opportunities for goverments to have stepped in and mitigated the human disaster that was to become of the Jews and other minority groups who fell under Nazi rule. The United States refused to alter their immigration policies. What amounted to refugee ships were turned away at ports. Other nations refused to step up and give the Jews safe harbor.  I hate to refer to it as indifference (though it would be a nice term than anti-semitism, which is did seem to at least border upon at times) but the coldness of other nations when there were moments they could have stepped in was abhorrent.

I was also mildly shocked at Churchill’s cold bloodedness. It’s easy to sort of be okay with his willingness to kill German’s at the time, but some of the quotes attributed to Churchill throughout the book make him appear nearly indifferent to the horrors caused by his naval blockade and the amount of collateral suffering imposed by his actions. By contrast, the German’s do not come off as nearly the monsters history largely paints them as. It seems that there was a genuine opportunity for the worst of their attrocities to be avoided, or at least greatly mitigated, by a different approach (such as allowing the Jews to get the hell out of Europe before everything hit the fan instead of slamming shut the immigration doors).

Another thing that I wasn’t as aware of before reading is how the US goaded Japan into action. Baker does not have a lot of takes from the Japanese side, but they really are not necessary considering the wealth of what he has from the Americans. FDR wanted to get into the war and Pearl Harbor gave him the excuse to do it. There have been some conspiracy theories that the US knew it was going to happen and did nothing just for that purpose, which I don’t fully believe. But it is clear that FDR was repeatedly jamming a stick into the side of Japan, trying to get them to react. It’s the lengths America went to for this that got to me. I had no idea we supported China’s fight against Japan so long or so openly. Or that we taunted them by giving fuel to the Soviets but not to them.  Or the numerous smaller things that just kept poking that stick.

Reading Baker’s collection of excerpts makes it appear as though the leaders of the world were nearly spoiling for another war. And those who were actively pushing for military engagement were marginalized by those that were. there’s a certain feeling of connection between this and the W. presidency after 9-11. It seemed that regardless of anything else that was to happen, war would be declared. It’s a brutal idea, that was might be desired by a select few to the point of inevitability.

Reading Baker’s afterward, he notes that all of his quotes, all of his material, are readily available to the public -largely through newspaper. I’ve also been reading Baker’s book Double Fold, which I’m unlikely to finish as I just can’t get into it (though I will keep trying.  In Double Fold, Baker documents the attempt of libraries to ditch their newspaper collections in favor of microfilm or whatever new tech has happened by that is supposed to be able to store a whole lot of newspaper in a tiny tiny space. The short of it is that our digital and film copies are largely horrible and error filled. Words, sometimes pages, are lost. Finely detailed pictures are reduced to blobs. In an effort to save space, our libraries have blown vast sums of money (as Baker points out, far more than it would have cost to just build a warehouse to store the stuff they wanted to replace) to make barely legible copies that are wholly inferior to the originals. This has resulted in us losing a vast amount of knowledge about our past.  It has also resulted in our scholarly work on history changing, as there are fewer and fewer caches of source materials for our historians to draw from.  We are literally destroying our past, so it  may be no wonder that we so often seem to repeat it.

Here is the B&N link for Human Smoke.

And here for Double Fold.


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