Nicholson Baker has always been an outlier in American letters. Born in 1957, he is more or less contemporary with the celebrated literary generation of David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Mary Karr, Colson Whitehead, George Saunders, and Helen DeWitt. Like them, he marries a postmodernist elasticity of form to a realist curiosity about the vicissitudes of everyday life. Baker’s remarkable first novel, The Mezzanine, published in 1988, combined scholarly footnotes, impossibly minute hyperdescription, and gee-whiz sincerity, innovations that Wallace’s Infinite Jest would help standardize a decade later. Baker, also like his contemporaries, turned his hand to creative nonfiction after achieving some success as a novelist and published seven volumes as well as numerous essays for The New Yorker and other magazines.
But what sets Baker apart from his peers is how genuinely odd he is. He is driven by a rather singular set of obsessions, and his writing, though always finely crafted, often feels compulsive, as if his mind were a perpetual-motion machine unable to bring itself to rest. Consider this description of a sweater from his second novel, Room Temperature:
a brown monster stout with various fugal inversions and augmentations of the standard cable knit, and consequently glutted with insulational dead air, its corona of lighter outer fibers frizzing out three-eighths of an inch or more from the slubbed and satisfyingly clutchable weave that formed the actual structure underneath…
There is absolutely no reason to write about a sweater like this. We’re all familiar with sweaters, and the precision and minute detail found in Baker’s description doesn’t really help us to imagine this particular one. But what Baker is after is not verisimilitude; he is after a certain kind of experience derived from sustained and detail-oriented attention. “Everything is interesting,” Baker argued in a recent New York Times Magazine essay. “You may think a certain thing is completely without interest. You may think, or I may think, eh, dull, boring, heck with it, let’s move on. But… You have to poke at a thing, sometimes, and find out where it squeaks.”
Baker’s attempts to poke things and find out where they squeak has led him to his two great subjects, the mundane and the erotic, both of which he limns in extraordinary detail. Roughly 50 percent of Baker’s novels are full of precise, elaborate descriptions of everyday activities: riding an escalator in The Mezzanine, feeding a baby in Room Temperature, waking up and getting dressed in A Box of Matches. The other half are filled with precise, elaborate descriptions of sex: phone sex in Vox; creepy, nonconsensual sex in The Fermata; raunchy, surreal cartoon sex in House of Holes, where a character has sex with, among other things, a tree. Half the time Baker’s Seinfeld, the other half he is Sade.
Baker has also carried this maniacal obsessiveness into his nonfiction. Starting with U and I, a 1991 memoir that meticulously documented his relationship to the work, but not the person, of John Updike, Baker built a second career as a literary journalist and nonfiction writer. In 2001, he wrote a polemic about the destruction of archival print media, Double Fold, that carefully reconstructed the look, feel, and smell of old newspapers, and seven years later, he published Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, where he really climbed out on a limb: There are few shibboleths more powerful in Western culture than the idea that World War II was a “just war.” Baker, a radical pacifist, dared to not only question this consensus but exhume the voices of the dissidents, and he went to extraordinary lengths to unearth and give renewed meaning and power to this now-buried debate.
Baker’s latest nonfiction book, Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids, is his longest by some distance—running to over 700 pages—and it does not skimp on detail. But unlike U and I, which was a blend of memoir and literary criticism, or Double Fold and Human Smoke, which relied mostly on archival research, Substitute is a work of real-time creative noticing. Baker has brought the intensity of attention displayed in his novels to the particulars of substitute teaching, which is perhaps the least glamorous of all the pedagogical professions. “I wanted to know what life in classrooms was really like,” he writes in the preface to Substitute. What’s missing from books on education, he adds, “is a lived-through sense of how busy and complicated and weird and long every school day is; how many ups and downs there are, and how exhausting—and sometimes entertaining—school is, for students and teachers both.”
Baker is such a wonderful prose stylist that he could probably get away with publishing his diary—which, for epic stretches, is what Substitute feels like. The tedium of what he describes is sometimes extreme. But there are few pages that aren’t enlivened by an exceptional turn of phrase.
Quite often, too, readers can find themselves learning (or relearning) something, and even enjoying it. A very partial list of the topics covered and things you may learn about in this book includes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Mendelian genetics, multiplication tables, Rube Goldberg machines, how to make a sugar scoop out of sheet metal, and the Holocaust. But above all else, Substitute will teach you what you once knew but have probably forgotten: how strange and hard and boring and scary and wonderful it is to go to school.
* * *
Books on education are often heavy on critique and theory and light on description. This is true of many of the genre’s classics, from Rousseau’s Émile to John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, and it is also the case when it comes to contemporary examples by figures like Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier. At the center of these books is a skeptical dissection of education as it is and an exalted and sometimes utopian vision of how it might be. Like his predecessors, Baker originally set out to write his own “grand treatise on educational theory”—but as he went along, he soon found himself attracted, as usual, to the nitty-gritty details.
There are occasional wisps of criticism in Substitute. Baker worries, more than once, that the school day is too long and that kids max out their educational capacity for the day after lunch. “The thing I’ve noticed…is that people mean well, but there’s only so much you can do in a day,” he opines to a captive audience of seventh graders. “It seems like everybody shuts down after a time. You could compress what happens from, say, eight to two into half the time and still get learning done.”
Baker also worries that many of his students are overmedicated, usually for ADHD or anxiety, and he frequently finds that the assignments he’s obliged to offer are rote and sometimes nonsensical. “So much of what Mrs. Painter was required to teach was pseudo-knowledge,” Baker says of one biology class, “lists of tongue-embrambling Greek- and Latin-rooted words like prokaryotic and heterotrophic and halophilic that were perfect for tests because they were hard to remember. This was torture by word list. The uglier the word, the better, because it more efficiently showed who was willing to commit gobbledygook to memory and who wasn’t.”
But most of all Baker criticizes the excessive use of technology in the classroom. At the Maine public schools where he subs, all of the students are given free iPads, which one metal-shop teacher calls “the bane of education.” While they do have their uses, Baker observes, the iPads tend to be used more as chits in a system of punishments and rewards than as tools for actual education. “They get you hooked on the iPads,” he tells a group of eighth graders, “and then they say if you don’t deliver the goods we will take away the thing that makes you happy.”
In Substitute, Baker gives a quick précis of his own education: private kindergarten followed by public elementary school in Rochester, New York; participation in “one of the earliest experiments in voluntary integration” (i.e., busing) in 1967; and high school at the experimental, progressive School Without Walls in Washington, DC, “where I played music and took whatever classes I wanted and watched a lot of sitcoms on TV.”
While Baker’s education was a mildly (but not radically) unconventional one for an American of his generation, he mentions it not because he is advocating the kind of schooling that society offered back in his day. Instead, the nonexemplary features of his education are what he cherishes most about it. His memories of school all come down to arbitrary but indelible details:
Once I saw a boy squash a praying mantis with his sneaker, a horrible sight, and once I saw another boy slammed into a wall by a teacher during a game of dodgeball. In third grade we learned cursive, and the teacher, Mrs. Newcomb, who disliked me because of my Beatles haircut, told me that I was going to injure my eyesight by reading an old edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, set in tiny type…. I did nothing in seventh grade except eat Hostess Ho Hos and think about ten-speed bicycles and speed skates.
We can continue to make kids play dodgeball, practice cursive, and read Jules Verne as part of their public-school education, but that praying mantis, that Beatles haircut, those speed skates are unrepeatable—they are what help define Baker’s unique experience. Today’s students will have their own versions of these details, these memories, but Baker’s point is that they are not experiences that we can build into a curriculum, except insofar as we allow kids time to find them. It is these singular, fleeting, extracurricular moments that concern Baker, and he insists that any real education must make space for them.
* * *
Depending on your tolerance for non-narrative description, Substitute may prove a frustrating book. The unit of composition, as in much of Baker’s previous work, is the non sequitur. Most of the incidents recounted in it could have occurred in virtually any order, and it’s probably better read as a catalog of pithy observations with little bits of narrative webbing rather than as a story or work of journalism.
Baker also has a reporter’s recall, though not a reporter’s urge to probe. If his students say something interesting or revealing about their family lives but don’t discuss it further, Baker tends to let it be. Likewise, the little stirrings of social conscience that occasionally trouble his mind always subside after a few paragraphs. The most radical action he takes in the course of the book is to speak to the school nurse about a student he thinks has been prescribed too much of the antidepressant Paxil.
In many ways, these characteristics make Baker a born teacher. He’s patient and intellectually curious, and he’s a good listener and sincerely loves children. But in other ways, his more literary instincts make him utterly hopeless. At one point, Baker finds himself in what ought to be his element: teaching an eighth-grade English class. But the lesson plan calls for a discussion of “conflict in short stories,” which is where things start to go amiss. The scene is worth quoting at some length, because, though it is not his proudest hour as an educator, it tells us quite a lot about Baker’s view of writing:
I said I didn’t understand what conflict was, and why we needed to look for it.…
“It’s person versus person,” said Aaron.
“I see, it’s a fight,” I said.
Melissa raised her hand. “It was person versus self.”
“That’s what they say, right, it’s person versus self,” I said. “I guess you’re right.”
The class went back to talking. I looked down at the sub plans. I had nothing to offer them. Somebody started noisily sharpening a pencil.…
“So you’re supposed to write a rough draft of an essay about internal and external conflict. Why do you think they came up with this word that somehow sums up all short stories? Why wouldn’t it be that a short story is about what is beautiful and interesting in life?”
The class went quiet. Payson said, “Because there’d be no fun in that?”
I said, “Something has to go wrong?”
Payson nodded. “Something always has to go wrong in order for something else to go right.”
In Baker’s writing, nothing ever really goes wrong (even if, as this scene suggests, nothing ever really goes right either). He fills the space usually occupied by plot and tension—by what the teacher who drew up the lesson plan calls “conflict”—with observation, lyricism, imagination, humor, and occasional fits of pique. His novels and nonfiction seek to capture “what is beautiful and interesting in life,” but often at the expense and to the exclusion of narrative.
Conflict in narratives is often about tension (another word that Baker hates); it’s about exciting your neurons and then relaxing them with a satisfying resolution, be it happy or tragic. Baker prefers literature to stimulate the brain a little bit at every step and in every sentence; he wants to slow down time so that we focus on the parts, not just on the whole. Many readers will agree with young Payson that there’s no fun in this kind of conflict-free writing (Stephen King, for one, called Vox “a meaningless little fingernail paring”). But for a certain kind of person, such slow, methodical attention to the beauty found in everyday details can be illuminating, even transcendent.
This principle also undergirds Baker’s educational philosophy, such as it is. (Although he never frames a “philosophy” in any formal sense, an educational theory inevitably begins to emerge from his descriptions of classroom interactions.) Teaching is too conflict-driven, he insists; we try to push in order to get a pull; we try to build narratives where we should be happy with observation and description. Baker wants us to dwell within the moments, instead of lining experiences up like dominoes and watching them crash into one another. Like Proust, probably his closest literary relative, Baker’s preferred mode of transcendence lies in halting the march of time. His fiction and nonfiction arrive at their moments of grace by registering minutiae: the exact quality of his students’ silence, the opportunity to savor not only the coffee-laced chocolate but also the long Native American name of its manufacturer.
Unlike David Foster Wallace and others who have written about the despair of modern boredom, Baker does not believe that the mundanity of everyday life is a horror. For him, boredom simply doesn’t exist—not, anyway, for the observer who really knows how to see. “I’m a carefree, happy huge shining slimy eyeball of weird wonderment,” he writes in his Times essay, glossing Emerson’s famous remark, in “Nature,” about becoming “a transparent eye-ball.” “I can swivel in any direction. Any direction I look, I will find something interesting.”
Wallace was a stoic when it came to the modern horrors of boredom, which were embodied in The Pale King by the bureaucratic drudgery of the IRS. By passing through this suffering, he believed we could become better, happier people. Baker, by contrast, is a hedonist. He fills his books with the things he cares about, and he doesn’t care about plot and tension and resolution, no matter how many other people do. The motto he puts forth in the Times essay applies not only to Substitute but to all of his writing: Everything is interesting—if, that is, you have the wherewithal to look and think.
It’s no surprise then that this is what Baker thinks teachers ought to be teaching their charges. “You know what I like doing?” he asks a kid named Sam, who is struggling to find the conflict in “The Cold Equations,” by Tom Godwin. “You read the story, and then you close it and you say, ‘What in this story was actually memorable?’” This isn’t how children are typically taught to read in school. Not many educational theorists, and even fewer literary critics, would consider “What in this story was actually memorable?” to be a particularly sophisticated prompt for analysis. But you could do worse than Baker’s question as a criterion for actual pleasure in reading, which—the fact must be faced—may not be teachable.
Finding pleasure in the details is ultimately what’s at the center of Substitute. It is also at the center of all of Baker’s writing. If his novels about sex have gotten more attention, it’s because sexual pleasure is easy for most of us to understand, and few have written about it better than Baker. But he and his characters manage to take pleasure in so much else: staplers, straws, peanut butter, meatball subs, brassieres, washing machines, model airplanes, clip art, conspiracy theories, coffee filters, and a thousand other things.
You need these kinds of daily pleasures, Baker suggests, to make it through something as harrowing and arduous and unfair as an American public-school education. You also need them to survive the monotonies of adult life. Over the course of Substitute’s 736 pages, it’s the kids who continually remind Baker of the importance of this outlook: not the ones who fill out their worksheets faithfully, but the ones who are good at amusing themselves, even if it means sneaking peeks at Vine videos during class. Learn to enjoy the little things—or the big things will crush you.
School, almost despite itself, can teach us this. It may not reliably instill in us the dates of the Civil War or compel us to remember our multiplication tables, but it can provide us with ways to live in the world. It can offer us strategies for dealing with boredom and cruelty and injustice. “Life’s curriculum is infinite,” Baker observes in Substitute’s penultimate paragraph. “Most of the interesting things we know we can’t explain. Most of what we need to know we were not taught.” The best that school—and books like Baker’s—can hope to teach us is how to keep ourselves interested.