Friday, February 25, 2011

Human Smoke

I just finished reading Nicholson Baker's "Human Smoke", a nonfiction collection of reportage from the beginning of World War II. Baker collects diary entries, newspaper stories, speeches, and other bits from sources on both sides to tell a version of the story up to and including Pearl Harbor. I went on to read, on Goodreads and Amazon and other places, some very angry negative reviews of the book.

The complaints seem to center on the notion that Baker isn't being fair to figures like Churchill and Roosevelt, and is being too fair to pacifists like Gandhi and the Quakers. Indeed, any selection of quotes includes the bias of the selector- and you come away from Nicholson's book with a new perception of the absolute goodness of the Western powers. You could probably select a different series of entries and come out with a very different book. The complaints usually also say something along the lines of "pacifism is all well and good, but there was no negotiating with Hitler." That is probably true. And Baker's work, powerful as it is, does not give you an entire picture of World War II- if this is your first World War II book, you should probably look elsewhere.

But what I came away from the book with was an appreciation for how consistent the peace movement was. I think I always knew (and after sending my son to a Quaker school, I couldn't help but know) about Quaker pacifism. A question that had interested me, but I never asked anyone who was in a position to know, was "You oppose all wars? Even World War II? Even against the people who built ovens to roast human beings?" And the answer is, "Yes, even then." I don't know if I have the courage to favor such an absolute path. But I certainly admire the consistency. If you want to know a little bit more about how some people opposed even World War II, "Human Smoke" is a good place to start.

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