Author and library activist
, responsible for the investigative work that revealed the staggering number of books that were actually thrown out when San Francisco
moved the main branch of its library to lavish (and supposedly larger) new quarters.
Two years earlier, in 1994, Baker's mournful essay "Discards," on the rapid extinction of library card catalogs in favor of computerized systems, was published in The New Yorker to equal measures of acclaim and controversy, among librarians and others. Some labeled Baker a Luddite, although he was and is an enthusiastic participant in online communities such as The WELL, and generally doesn't have much to say against the Internet compared to some of his contemporaries. "Discards" focused on the user interface problems of many onsite computerized library catalogs, the hidden information in traditional paper catalogs (such as the visible dark patches where many fingers have riffled the cards, indicating the relative popularity of a section), and the many things we can lose when we march toward progress too fast, and without looking. (The essay is part of Baker's collection of short nonfiction works, The Size Of Thoughts.)
On the strength of this work, some dissenting San Francisco librarians contacted him when "the New Main," resplendent with its marble atrium (which sends loud echoes throughout the building) and large arrays of Internet-wired computer desks, came up short on stack space to the tune of a few hundred thousand books. Baker snuck in to examine the stacks, did the math, and spoke out against the destruction and general incompetence involved, in a speech in the new building's own auditorium. (Presumably, he was invited to speak about something else.) The media splash that resulted was tiny by American standards for scandal, but he made the local papers as well as Salon.com and the New Yorker's Talk Of The Town section.
Although he seems reluctant to be called a library activist, his activism has gone further since. Leads generated by the above eventually resulted in Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, a book-length work published in 2001. Libraries around the world are microfilming and subsequently destroying aging books and irreplaceable (often beautiful) newspapers, at an alarming rate. The book unveils the companies that launched the PR campaign that made this whole conflagration make sense to a lot of otherwise reasonable, book-loving people. Double Fold is named for the test that book-scanners are using to determine if a book is fit to remain available on the shelves: a wide dog-ear is folded backward and forward, and if the corner of the page comes off when given a tug, before a certain number of folds, the book is removed from circulation after being scanned. It isn't always removed from circulation in a disastrous way, but the fact is that a more sensible test of a book's fitness for public handling would be, oh, say, turning the page.
Double Fold begins and ends with testimony from individuals who cared so much about old American newspapers that they hastily formed non-profit organizations to grant asylum to a library collection that was due to be destroyed otherwise. The twist is that the last individual to testify is Baker himself. In 1999 the British Library made it known that their large collection of foreign newspapers was subject to "dispersal," and Baker hastily formed the American Newspaper Repository in order to preserve them. The collection includes large consecutive runs of the early-20th-century Chicago Tribune and the gorgeous, nearly forgotten New York World. The World in particular featured copious full-color inserts and special graphic sections, which microfilm reproduction reduces to unintelligible smudges. These runs now sit in a warehouse in Maine near Baker's family's current home. Baker is spending considerable money and time keeping these materials available, and deserves to get some kind of medal, if there were a medal-bestowing authority run by bookworms and preservationists. Appellations which don't necessarily include librarians, it appears.
But, to switch gears, Baker is sitting on a bit more money than the average minutiae-obsessed American man of letters, due to his novels Vox and The Fermata, which are completely full of sex, and therefore sold quite well.
Vox was published in 1992 and eventually got the full multiple-collectible-cover-jacket treatment, by its fourth or fifth printing. Baker later said in interviews that he found, on his book tours, that he couldn't bring himself to read from the book in public, preferring to read a short essay about doing readings ("Reading Aloud," later collected in The Size of Thoughts). While Vox is chock-a-block with material ripe for one-handed reading, it is also a tour de force of dialogue, with only the barest minimum of un-quoted exposition to hold the whole thing together, like the scant traces of batter that provide cohesion in a fruitcake almost entirely gridlocked with nuts and candied fruit. Where his previous (second) novel Room Temperature showed he could subsist without footnotes (I'd like to see David Foster Wallace try that), Vox showed further evidence of Baker's growth as an artist.
To his occasional chagrin, Baker found he had more to say about sex, and wrote The Fermata to explore the time-honored male fantasy of stopping time and taking off women's clothes. Baker reported in an interview that, while his wife enjoyed Vox, The Fermata actually made her somewhat angry. Many readers shared her ire, and found Fermata indulgent, offensive, or just unnecessary in a world that already had Philip Roth to deal with. In any case, Baker's next long work, the long essay "Lumber" in the back of Size of Thoughts, was mostly about Victorian literature and CD-ROM encyclopedias. As an interviewer remarks, he's earned his lumber; after two best-selling racy novels, Baker can be as pedantic as he damned well pleases.
A brief Baker bibliography:
The Mezzanine (1988)
Room Temperature (1990)
U and I (1991)
The Fermata (1994)
The Size of Thoughts (1996)
The Everlasting Story of Nory (1998)
Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001)
A Box of Matches (2003)
Human Smoke (2008)