My History With Authors

He had come to Porter Square Books to talk about Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End Of Civilization and had attracted the crazies you might expect — white-haired war enthusiasts who raised their hands aggressively, all ooo, ooo ooo ooo, warbling incomprehensible yelps about 1914, or why we shouldn’t negotiate with madmen (madmen who have hurt others before! Fool me seven times? Fool, ff-fool me fourteen times?), or with new historical scenarios — if we invaded then, don’t you agree, surely you can’t deny, we would have immediately won the war?

Some kid in hipster glasses wanted to know what all of this said about global warming.

“… I don’t know,” Baker shrugged, good-natured. “I can’t even begin to talk about global warming right now.”

Afterwards, my friend Angie and I joined the book-signing line — which was, granted, a little slow-moving, with all the crazies and their follow-up questions. I had brought my copy of Counterpoint, and she asked me what it was about.

“Oh, it’s great. It’s about these two guys … so, one of them wants to kill George W. Bush, he’s the kind of crazy one, and it’s a play, and … um, so, the play is about him wanting to kill the president … and he talks about why that might be justified. And it’s just the two of them talking, about that.”

“Huh,” she said. “Hey, do you like Soduku?”

* * *

I had been practicing the sentences I would utter to Nicholson Baker, and they went like this:

“I have two potentially gauche questions for you,” I said. “One, is it okay to ask for a signing of a book that isn’t Human Smoke?”

“Of course!” he smiled. “I’ll sign anything!”

“And two, is it all right to ask you to sign more than one book? One is for someone else; she introduced me to your work.”

“Of course, of course!”

I glowed in the shadow of this physical and metaphorical giant, and inwardly congratulated myself for both casually using the word gauche, and neglecting to make a complete ass of myself in front of Nicholson freaking Baker.

“Oh,” he said, as he handed the books back to me. “And I heard what you said, about Counterpoint, and that’s really not how I think of that book. It’s more about the man convincing the other, why it is not appropriate to kill the president. Not the other way around.”

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  1. Never having read a word written by Nicholson Baker, I declare this to be a confusing thing for him to have said.

    That is, I take “person Y is convincing person Z of proposition X” to mean that two people are discussing X and NOT X, and the burden of proof rests primarily with X.

    But, if two people are discussing the relative merits of X and NOT X, then it’s natural to see burden of proof as resting on the person arguing for the less instinctively obvious position.

    In this case, that position is clearly “Hey, I think killing the president might be a cool thing to do.” So, the burden of proof rests with this argument. Which means that we say “this person is convincing this other person that it might be cool to kill someone,” rather than the other way around.

  2. Really? Not even the Charms of Wikipedia article (linked to off your own group blog)? Ho ho!

    I’m kind of tempted to reread Counterpoint now. Unfortunately I don’t tend to recall plot developments very well for any book, but I think he may have had a point, in that the main character begins the book with “y’know, I’d like to do this crazy thing, because he’s a terrible person” and the following majority – and focus – of the book really is the more sane friend talking him down from that. But, as I say, who can remember these things? Maybe that was the plot for Watership Down.

  3. Sorry, I only checked my mental list of novels read. I failed to consider the author of everything I ever read on the internet.

  4. Damn! If I’d known you were seeing him, I would have sent my copies of VOX and FERMATA for autographs as well. I am envious.

    If it makes you feel any better, the “weak-knee’d / fears of saying dopey stuff around an author” stuff has not disappeared for me. I actually stood in line at the Fitzgerald theater a few years ago with tons of kids who were clutching their copies of POLAR EXPRESS waiting to see Chris van Allsburg. They had restricted each person to a single book, so I brought my first edition of THE GARDEN OF ABDUL GASAZI which was published in 1979. I never did come up with anything brilliant to say. He signed. I said “thanks” and walked away. Sigh.

  5. What a good step-daughter. Surely, the heavens will smile on you for this one, Adrianne. Reading the comments sure brought warmth to my weary bones.

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