Card-Carrying Fetishist

Some bibliophiles hail Nicholson Baker as defender of a library under siege. His critics call him an antediluvian nutbag.

"When Nick Baker came here, he suddenly became the queen bee of the hive," says librarian Melissa Riley, an outspoken supporter of the card catalog and critic of Ken Dowlin. "We were all like these little worker bees saying, 'Something's wrong; something's wrong.' People knew that things were wrong, but Nicholson crystallized it."

The most painful sting for library officials may come when Baker starts disseminating the information he's collected. He recently completed a new treatise for the New Yorker devoted solely to the New Main. It's doubtful that Dowlin will be sending copies of the article to friends and relatives with his Christmas cards.

"The whole country is going to know about what's going on at the New Main," Riley crows with anticipation. "This involves a lot more than just the card catalog. Ken Dowlin is somebody who basically decided to discard the past in favor of the future rather than seeing them as both necessary and desirable."

It makes sense that Nick Baker grew up in Rochester, N.Y. "It's the perfect city for me," he explains. "It's unheralded and nobody grows up with a burning desire to live there. You had to look for interesting things and make everyday things interesting. When I write, I'm often picking an out-of-the-way thing or an utterly commonplace thing and giving it the tuxedo treatment."

Baker had planned to be wearing a tuxedo in an orchestra pit when he finished high school and enrolled in the Eastman School of Music. He lasted one year. "I didn't turn out to be very musical at all," he says. "I sort of sensed in high school that I didn't have what real composers have -- the mental hardware to hear the harmonies in your head."

After graduating from Haverford College, Baker headed back to Rochester to launch a writing career. He sold his bassoon to help support himself. At the tender age of 24, he got the break many older writers only dream about. The New Yorker accepted a short story he'd written about a character who hires people to sleep for him. Baker's elation was short-lived. "I thought I had it all figured out, but it turned out I'd said everything I had to say at that point," he remembers.

With rejection slips and unfinished stories piling up, Baker ended up in Boston where he happily toiled in the city's "temp underworld." It gave him a chance to drop in on huge corporations and government bureaucracies, gather fodder for his writing, and move on. He gave up on short stories and was soon publishing essays in the Atlantic Monthly and other magazines.

Novels followed -- The Mezzanine (1988), which takes place during an office worker's lunch hour and features ruminations on drinking straws and the meaning of neckwear, and Room Temperature (1990), a uniquely Bakerian look at child care. But Baker didn't truly establish himself until 1992 with Vox, an inventive tale of phone sex that the New York Times Book Review called "extraordinary." He followed it up in 1994 with The Fermata, a tale of stopping time, bare-naked ladies, and masturbation. Some derided the effort as highbrow fodder for Penthouse Forum and wondered if Baker had shot his wad as a novelist. But among his growing cult of hard-core readers, the book cemented Baker's reputation as a quirky, major talent.

Baker credits an unexpected source for his increasing success.
"I didn't figure out how to write until after I got married and had a child," says Baker, whose daughter was born in 1987, followed by a son six years later. "I suddenly realized I had to write for a living, and I had to say the things I had stored up. I attribute it entirely to father hormones. I think having a child actually changes the chemistry of your brain."

The success of Vox gave Baker and his family the financial wherewithal to leave the small town in upstate New York where they were living and move to Berkeley. Baker's wife, Margaret, grew up there and her father still teaches medieval history at Cal.

"We decided we'd eaten enough corn, and we wanted to live in a place that had more bookstores," Baker says. "I never imagined I'd end up suing the San Francisco Library."

In June, Baker sued the library under the city's Sunshine Ordinance to gain access to the ornately carved, 79-year-old catalog and a portion of the more than 3 million index cards it contains. The catalog has been "frozen" since 1991 when librarians stopped updating it in preparation for the switch to an on-line system. Dowlin, who had expressed a desire to auction off the catalog, was forced to grant access when the City Attorney's Office ruled the card catalog, which still sits in the deserted Old Main, was a public record.

"I'm interested in the history of scholarship and, therefore, I'm interested in the card catalog," Baker says. "It's part of the collection. It's unique. It's crucial to the history of San Francisco. By being frozen, the card catalog shows what the library wanted in its collection in the 20th century. That's an important thing to know."

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