The new book Human Smoke by the novelist Nicholson Baker revisits World War II and finds a troublesome injustice in the Allied cause opposing Hitler. This past weekend Baker’s book won the plaudits of novelist Colm Toibin in the Times Book Review. Toibin found the book “a serious and conscientious contribution to the debate about pacifism.” The Times published Toibin’s review under the heading “Their vilest hour.”
Baker’s book has not found favor at the New York Sun, where it has been the subject of an unflattering review by Adam Kirsch and a related editorial. In a letter to the editor of the Sun today, Baker denies the moral equivalence that the Sun found in his book. Baker writes that he is merely injecting “some balm of moderating wisdom and instruction” on the subject of the war. The Sun comments on Baker’s letter in the editorial “Smoke bomb.”
In his Times review, Toibin acknowledged that it is “possible that Human Smoke will infuriate those who believe that Churchill was a hero and that war, in all its viciousness, is often the only way to defeat those who declare or threaten war.” Does anyone note a certain lack of precision in Toibin’s framing of the issue regarding World War II? One might almost think that the lofty equivalance preached by the likes of Baker and Toibin has become the most prevalent form of degradation in everyday intellectual life.
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