By Timothy Gillis
PORTLAND – Nicholson Baker was in town last night to repay a favor. The author was inspired by the Longfellow House when he was researching a novel about poetry. “I had such a feeling of place,” he said of his tour through the Portland poet’s rooms, “learning where this poem was written, or that one. I imagined John Greenleaf Whittier standing in the shadows.” The real-life experience infused his fictional world, much as his writing “The Anthologist” in his barn’s loft mirrored the narrator’s experience, a free-verse poet writing about rhyme.
The Maine Historical Society provided grist for Baker’s mill a second time, when he visited the Brown Library as part of his research on “Double Fold,” a non-fiction work that recounts the efforts of Baker and his wife to preserve newspapers that libraries were sacrificing to microfilm.
So Baker felt he owed a double debt to MHS, and Richard D’Abate, who is retiring after sixteen years as executive director. They met at a time when Baker was admittedly angry at many librarians, but D’Abate inspired a positive feeling. “His ideas with melding text and things, and his enthusiasm – it’s a precious emotion.”
In a program called “Hold On: The Privilege of Keeping Old Things Safe,” Baker took the audience through his own recent work at the Brown Library, researching the Quakers first, and then, more thrillingly for him, reading the diary of Maine Civil War solider, John Mead Gould, author of the History of the Maine Regiment. The diary adds a second layer to the military history, showing the after-effects of war on the later banker and pacifist who lamented the US entering into a war with Spain and street brawls inspired by an international prize fight broadcast by telegraph. The diary revealed tragedy as well, and Baker did not want to linger long on the story of Gould’s 29-year-old daughter, worried about for page after diary page while missing in China with eventually the worst confirmed. Despite the sadness, he still saw a literary trip to the past one worth taking. “Reading through these diaries, especially in manuscript, is a useful, slowing down of time,” he said. “We live in a shell of todayness. Being in a library, you break out of your own shell, and enter another shell for a while, like a hermit crab. It’s like you’re reading an unpublished novel. You’re forced to slow down and read a life that doesn’t have as many advocates.”
Baker then spoke of his own “amateur” efforts to be a librarian, charmingly humble when recounting his gargantuan efforts to preserve the last remaining print copies of some of world history’s most important newspapers. Beautiful bound originals were being cut up and sold for scrap, “Newspaper of the Day You Were Born” for $30 each. The New York Times did not even keep a print copy of their own paper. Microfilmed copies seemed a viable space-saver, but Baker’s quest to preserve them helped him and others see the dramatic difference between an original artifact and a blotchy copy. “Microfilm makes history not like us,” he said. “We’re removed. There’s nothing wrong with taking pictures, but we need libraries to hold on to the originals.” Baker’s efforts were eventually donated to Duke University Library, in five tracker-trailer trucks of carefully handled works of journalistic art.
“Newspapers changed my life as a writer,” he said. “I realized one million readers were looking at a Chicago Tribune headline (“Bomb 4 Doomed Jap Cities”) and all silently assenting. There was no outrage.” Baker was sufficiently seethed to write Human Smoke, about the tiny missteps that led to the bombing. He collected scraps of thoughts in his car for inspiration, as the loft served as writer’s desk for the poetry novel. In creating “Box of Matches,” he and the narrator rise early and write by firelight.
Though he loves the artifact of a Civil War diary, and crusaded to save endangered newsprint, Baker still revels in new technology. He has written about video-gaming with his son, and awakens early with an iPod novel so as to leave the bedside light off. He said he misses the sound of the typewriter, especially the busy sound of other people’s typewriters “Fop, fop, fop, fop – I loved that sound,” he laughed. “I was always self-conscious about how much I had written. That’s the benefit of computer keyboards. The double click makes it seem like you’re writing more.”
(The program was part two of a seven-part series called “Conversations about History, Art, and Literature,” celebrating Richard D’Abate’s contributions to Maine’s cultural life.)