Alfred Nobel, the manufacturer of
explosives, was talking to his friend
the Baroness Bertha von Suttner,
author is Lay Down Your Arms.
by Nicholson Baker
This is often the way a book about history will start, a couple of brief scenes to set the stage for what follows. Usually, these scenes are meant to be ironic. (I know that my use of ironic is incorrect here, but everyone who reads this will still know exactly what I mean, which is also "ironic".) These two little bits of information on the first page of Human Smoke certainly grabbed my attention. To my surprise, when I turned the page I found an addtional two page spread with four more little anecdotes, each just as ironic. I read these, enjoyed them as well, and turned the page again to find four more little anecdotes.
Thumbing through the book, I soon saw that the entire thing was made up of little anecdotes, ranging from eight lines to a page and a half in length.
This is certainly a novel approach to a non-fiction work of history, I thought.
Novel enough to keep me reading for 175 pages, but not novel enough to keep me reading until the end.
By the time I decided to give up on Human Smoke, I'd come to have two major problems with Mr. Baker's approach to history. By using anecdotes like he does, Mr. Baker can control the input his readers will get, but he never makes any attempt to state what his conclusions are, or to offer us any hint as to what arguement he wants to make. A history of pacificism and anti-semetism in the days prior to World War II would make for interesting reading, but at some point the author really must come out and take a stand one way or another. Was pacifism the best choice one could make in 1938? To illustrate just how anti-semetic both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were is useful, but simply telling a series of anecdotes about the two fails to put their actions into enough context for the reader to make a sound judgement.
Anecdote is not evidence, I always say.
When reading a historical text like this one, I'd like to know what the author's argument is. With Human Smoke, readers are given a set of information and left to draw their own conclusions. This is a bit like what one does in a history class, a good history class, but in a history class the professor is in the room, explaining why these particular bits of information are important and how they fit together into a coherant argument. Mr. Baker just puts his anecdotes into a book, hands it to the students, and leaves the building.
My second issue with Human Smoke comes from the nature of anecdotes. They almost always have a slightly smug feel to them. There's the assumption that everyone gets the same point and that the teller never need do more that tell his anecdote to prove how clever he is. I have no problem with this in moderation: I do it myself. A good anecdote should make the reader go "hmmph." Good anecdotes leave you thinking for about six and half seconds, maybe seven. I can see putting two little "hmmph"'s at the start of a much longer work, I even like it when historians put one at the start of each new chapter, but four "hmmph'''s every time you turn a page! It's just too many "hmmph"'s. It starts looking smug, like a precocious child who's done a lot of reading but still can't quite formulate a thesis statement and get on with it.
As a reader I had to admit that each anecdote was ironic, but that soon became all I was thinking. That's ironic. That's ironic, too. That's also ironic. That's ironic once again. That's ironic another time....
I still think the subject matter of Human Smoke is compelling, I'm sure there's a good book about it out there somewhere.
It probably even starts with a little anecdote.