Nicholson Baker: A Life in Detail

Novelist's 'A Box of Matches' Celebrates the Smaller Things

Nicholson Baker

hide captionNicholson Baker

Random House

From 'A Box of Matches'

Listen to Nicholson Baker read selections from his latest novel:

Listen Excerpt 1

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Cover for 'A Box of Matches'

hide captionCover for 'A Box of Matches' (Random House — ISBN 0375502874)

It's often hard to tell where Nicholson Baker ends, and the characters of his novels begin. Baker tells NPR's Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr that he wrote his latest novel, A Box of Matches, only by the light of a fire.

"My goal was to get up at 4:30 in the morning, so I got up and made a fire... in the dark," Baker tells Freymann-Weyr. "The idea was not to let incandescent light intrude on my consciousness — and I found that it did change the way I thought."

At the same time Baker was writing A Box of Matches, he was setting up the non-profit American Newspaper Repository, which attempts to save old newspapers that would otherwise be discarded by libraries. Saving old books and newspapers as important historical documents was the subject of his last non-fiction book, Double Fold. Baker says it's the responsibility of libraries to preserve history, even if it is "yesterday's news."

"In both his fiction and non-fiction, Baker has carved out a literary niche for himself, paying attention to the small things that make up his and his characters' daily lives," Freymann-Weyr says. "Baker's novels are relentless in their attention to detail."

• His first novel, The Mezzanine, a slim book brimming with footnotes, follows the inner life of a man riding an escalator after buying shoelaces on his lunch hour.

Room Temperature is about a father feeding his six-month-old daughter.

Vox takes the form of a transcribed phone-sex conversation.

• The anti-hero of The Fermata is a man who uses his ability to stop time for sexual escapades.

• The childlike Everlasting Story of Nory follows the inner thoughts of 9-year-old Eleanor Winslow.

"I want the books to be about things that you don't notice when you're noticing them," Baker says. "You kind of notice things in passing, and never put a frame around them — and then somebody like me comes along and writes a book about them. And then that book itself becomes the frame."

Nicholson Baker says he plans to alternate between fiction and non-fiction, "continuing to examine those ordinary things that most people overlook, and helping to introduce his readers to the familiar," Freymann-Weyr says.

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