The Essayist

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The Little Nicholson Baker in my Mind

BY PAUL LA FARGE

Once, when I was in college, one of my closest friends came down with something and developed strange white nodules in his throat. He stood in front of the mirror in our room (we were roommates that semester), his mouth wide open, transfixed by these growths; finally, by dint of a certain amount of coughing, he was able to get a few of them out of his throat into the palm of his hand. “Hey,” he said, “these nodules are really interesting.” “Uh huh,” I said. He held out his hand. “Look, they’re kind of shiny.” I turned away. “You have to see them,” he said. “They’re really strange looking.” “I don’t want to see your nodules,” I said. My roommate tried several more times to get me to look. He seemed surprised that I could be so incurious about the marvels his throat had worked. I felt a little bit guilty—shouldn’t I have been more curious? These were, after all, extraordinary nodules; I might never get a chance to see their like again. And he was showing them to me in the spirit of scientific inquiry. Human beings sometimes produce white nodules; if you want to know what it is to be human, really to understand how human beings work, you should know their unpleasant parts, their small mucoid ejecta, along with the features (faces, secondary sexual characteristics, clothes, thoughts) that interest you in the day-to-day. I was able to follow his reasoning; at bottom I thought I agreed with it, even. It is better to know things about the world than not to know them. But I couldn’t bring myself to look at the nodules.

Reading Nicholson Baker sometimes has the same effect on me. I admire his ability to bring the small features of the world to light; and in principle I agree that everything is interesting, and worthy of careful study, but there are times when I just don’t want to look.

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