Thursday, April 24, 2008

Human Smoke

Nicholson Baker has penned a controversial new book about the buildup to World War II. Human Smoke: the beginnings of World War II, the end of civilization takes a very unusual approach to the subject. Rather than interpreting facts and events in a narrative form, Baker instead presents snippets of information: a diary entry, a newspaper quote, part of a speech, letters. These snippets act like a strobe light in the dark - they illuminate individual moments without providing a connecting thread. It is left to the reader to come up with their own interpretation. It's an interesting idea.
The controversy arises not from Baker's interpretation of pre-war events and comments, but from his selection of which events, comments and quotes to include in his book. The reader is left with a distinct impression of Churchill as a bloodthirsty warmonger, Roosevelt as an ingrained anti-Semite, and the powerful industrialists of Europe and America as deliberately prodding the world toward war for the sake of a few bucks (or many bucks, actually). If you are interested in history at all then you will either love or hate this book - depending on your point of view. But regardless of your feelings, this book is sure to provoke strong emotions and serious thought about how exactly a world marches towards war.

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