There is a widely accepted philosophy that says history is written by the victor. I've always believed this to be true; naturally this has made me curious about some of the more time-honored events of the past. Specifically, I was quite curious about World War II: a world of liberation and salvation? a war of just causes? a war of good versus evil? Nicholson Baker addresses the war in Human Smoke and provides his reader with answers to some of these questions.
From the onset of this work, it is clear Baker's concern is presenting the facts in the simplest, most consolidated fashion possible: there's the fact, the basic details of the fact, followed by the date. It's rather monotonous and, at nearly 500 pages, a chore for those less than interested. My initial reaction was that Baker should've taken this material and made it into a very readable story. I assumed the reason he didn't elect to utilize the narrative was simply because he didn't know how to. We can't all craft entertaining stories. Except I then found out that Baker is a storyteller, a writer with seven highly regarded novels behind him. Change of theory: either Baker lost interest in the project, decided it best to just compile all his notes and print them as they were; or the stripped-down style was intentional.
Largely, Human Smoke focuses on 1940 and 1941. In fact, the book ends in '41, years before the Battle of the Bulge, the firebombing of Tokyo, the fall of Germany, and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Baker crams quite a few facts into the years between WWI and 1941, but a few stood out to me. Here I list them as I interpreted them:
Of course there's a lot more to this book than what I've mentioned above, and more knowledgeable students of history will likely walk away with more than I have. If these kinds of details interest you, as a reader, Human Smoke is an interesting read. If not, there's not much else here. Just a string of facts meant to paint the war in a more balanced light.