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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | NONFICTION

THE SIZE OF THOUGHTS Essays and Other Lumber By Nicholson Baker; Random House: 355 pp., $25

December 29, 1996|JIM KRUSOE

Like one or more cruise missiles set not on "search and destroy" but on "peruse," the essays collected in "The Size of Thoughts," by Nicholson Baker resist conclusions; they depend not on an occasional moment of charm for their glory but on whole bushel baskets of perceptions, engaging and quirky each and all. In that way, I suppose, these pieces resemble not so much those juggernauts of reason many of us associate with freshmen writing classes or opinion pieces found in news magazines that drive readers to their knees and make them say "uncle" or "aunt," but poems.

Indeed, one of the enjoyments of reading the work displayed here (written over the past 13 years) is seeing the progression from Baker's early writing to his most recent work. In his earliest essays, the young writer struggles with Ideas, or rather the idea of Ideas. Then, rather quickly as these things go, he gives himself over entirely to the famous dictum of William Carlos Williams, "No ideas but in things." Thus, the book examines not only model airplanes and nail clippers but also what it's like the first time to read one's work in public, movie projectors, the history of punctuation; it even throws in a recipe for a hot fudge sundae.

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