Monday, March 17, 2008

Nicholson Baker

Haverford College grads Nicholson Baker '80 and Greg Kannerstein '63 discussed Baker's new book, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.

Two questions from the Q & A:

GK: I've seen comments already by other writers that "Human Smoke" will be controversial. Ron Rosenbaum, author of "Imagining Hitler," said "it will be the most controversial book of the year." Do you have any predictions about what will be the most controversial aspects of "Human Smoke"?

NB: The main controversy is simply the age old question of how to respond to violent regimes. If you resist, how do you resist? The way the west resisted, guided by Churchill, was to build airplanes. The way the Quakers were advising was a different one. If we take their concern seriously, a controversy is likely to ensue.

* * *

GK: You seem both fascinated and appalled by Winston Churchill. In your afterword, you say Churchill was "wrong." Was Churchill one of the great villains of the saga you present or is there room for some ambivalence in your mind about his role?

NB: I cut out the part about how Churchill was wrong in the final printed edition of the book (it's in the galley) because that's too simple a conclusion. Churchill was an immensely complicated man, with great qualities - but in the years through which I followed him, he seemed to be in a kind of manic high that was fueled by the widening carnage of the war in which he was materially participating.

He wanted the war to widen. He was shockingly unconcerned about the suffering of civilians - Yugoslavian civilians, Polish, German, French, Italian, Japanese, even British civilians. He predicted, ahead of time, that British men would be roused to action by aerial bombing, and he wanted the German attack to come, so that the reality of the war would be brought home to those who weren't near any war zone. That's a very dangerous way to proceed - it releases massive antipathies. It's also, I think, simply the wrong thing to do. I believe I'm being fair to Churchill as he acted during one period of his long and amazing life.

Read the full interview.

--Marshal Zeringue