On U and I by Nicholson Baker

This book has changed the way I think about writing.

I rarely read "literature" as I find it dry as dust. I, who read a wide variety of nonfiction at a rate of several books a week; who can absorb a 500 page technical manual with at least moderate interest; who in other words can maintain attention levels in the face of tomes whose title alone would cross the eyes of less diligent readers, cannot get past the first 10 pages of classics like Tale of Two Cities or Pride and Prejudice.

I find literature stultifying because it all shares the same plot. I realize this is a contrary view, since most people assert (Nick mentions it in U and I) that novels span the utmost breadth, that it's those other sorts of writing (science fiction, westerns, romances, mysteries, etc.) that have limited scope. I don't disagree about those other works; my point is that literature is just as limited. The plot is invariably, "if person A (and perhaps B) are in situation C, they act in the manner D." In good literature, people A and B are well characterized, situation C is lovingly detailed, and D is revealing or realistically drawn, but all in all it comes down to a lesson in emotional arithmetic.

To say this another way, my view of the world has long been that (to paraphrase Ben Franklin) there are three kinds of people: those who like to talk about other people, those who like to talk about things, and those who like to talk about ideas. I'm aware that I'm an idea person, that literature readers are people people, and that nonreaders are often thing people. What U and I has unshuttered in my mind, a truth I'd first gotten glimmers of in Nick's first book, Mezzanine, is that there is a fourth kind of person, one who doesn't care what you're talking about as long as it's stated beautifully.

Reading U and I

The reason I read this book, in fact the only reason I'd even crack a volume so tainted with the mildewed odor of literature, is that I know the author socially: his mother Ann and my wife are longtime friends. I read Mezzanine, not exactly as a favor to Ann, but sort of, and to my surprise liked it quite a bit. Nick's approach of bringing the observation powers of a mystery novel detective to regular life events is entertaining; it makes one think. He's an idea writer, my kind of guy.

So while visiting Ann while she camped out in Nick's office, I browsed his bookshelfs and started U and I. It begins with the same sort of feel as does Mezzanine, so I was comforted enough to stick through the first couple chapters; once I found that the book is really about Nick's thought patterns and only incidentally about Updike, thereby removing my lingering doubts that I was being set up from a seriously boring literary dissertation, I dug in a read the whole thing.

I'm glad I did; although it isn't as eye-opening as the "aren't shoelaces interesting?" focus of Mezzanine, the new tack of "how does Nick think about things" grew on me. The book seems overconcerned with Nick's ambitions as a writer, but even that was metainteresting: he's so concerned about whether or not he's a genius, which I think is another form of my similar concern that what I'm doing is really making a mark on the world, that he is willing to go on and on about it, looking at details of his ambition that are really of no interest to others, except that it's really good to know that others are wrestling with the same issues, spending large fractions of their total brain time just trying to get aimed the right direction.

But despite having few plain but interesting descriptions a la Mezzanine, Nick is still preoccupied with wordplay. He uses a new approach that one could term esoteric adjectivitis, reaching for precise shades of meaning through specific and sesquipedalian modifiers; I found it less impactful than his older approach but fundamentally more relevant for the way that having a second species reveals the existence of an entire new phylum: he's now revealed juxtapositional adjectivitis, footnotic adjectivitis, and esoteric adjectivitis.

Nick also reveals another form of adjectivis through his quotations from Updike. The parts of Updike's work that are most memorable to Nick seem to be the sex and the wordplay. From the quotes given, Updike seems to have a way with phrases, that skill of bringing the meter of poetry to regular prose to make it delightful. This is closer to Nick's style in Mezzanine, the juxtapositional form in which an unusual word pair focuses the reader on the interplay of meanings.

The Sex

There seems to be a fifth type of person, those who like to talk about sex. I'm not one of them. I mean, sex is great, but it just doesn't consume me as it does so many others; I don't think about it all the time, other things don't incessantly remind me of it, I don't imagine that upon becoming omnipotent I'd use my powers to get more of it.

Nick's presentation makes me think that either he, or Updike, or both, are sex people. I have to say that the presence of focused discussion of sex makes me uncomfortable, not because I'm a prude (although I am), but because it implies that I'm not normal, that the author and his bevy of readers are a different sort of people than am I. What's wrong with me that I'm not obsessed with sex?

The level of sex talk in U and I is not high, just a general atmosphere combined with a few detailed comments. My reaction is partly due to what I've heard about the rest of Nick's publications: Vox and Fermata are said to be more preoccupied with sex. People love to read about sex, so Nick may not actually be a sex person himself, he may just write about it in order to become popular. But rather than impugn him as a prostitute to common tastes, I tend to believe he really is a sex person.

The main reason for my bewilderment on this point is the cognitive dissonance that comes from meeting Nick vs reading his books. Nick is a very polite, nice, intelligent, mild-mannered fellow; in other words, he seems somewhat more well-bred than the average American. It's true that his discussion of sex in U and I is always from an intelligent, educated, analytical point of view, but still, it sets up time waves of confusion across my psyche, between the times I talk to Nick and the times I read his writings. The washing back and forth as I try to resolve these incidents into a coherent view of Nick's personality makes me mentally nauseous.


Although the book uses sentences that can be an entire page long, and although the whole book is about Nick, himself, and him, and although the book is is overlong and repetitious of its main ideas, and although it's clear the author is well into the enemy literary camp due to his selection of quotes, I got a lot out of this book. And to be fair, the flaws are all in the nature of advantages to a different sort of reader.

The biggest personal impact of reading this book is that I'm far more interested in use of adjectives in my own writing. I think I'll see if I can't learn to use the occasional left-field adjective to more clearly evoke in the reader a complex specific interpretation of my phrases.

Substantive changes:
    March 25, 1996: created.
    June 1, 1996: tiny grammar touch-ups.
    July 27, 1996: add attribution to Ben Franklin.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Colwell, All Rights Reserved
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