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Germ Warfare, State Secrets, and Quiet Strolls

In his new book, Baseless, Nicholson Baker digs into government cover-ups and finds solace in Maine.

Nicholson Baker
Photographed by Elias Baker
By Buzz Poole

Nicholson Baker has written more than a dozen critically acclaimed and wildly divergent books, fiction and non, from 1988’s The Mezzanine, a novel consisting of the idle thoughts of a man ascending an escalator, to 2016’s Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids, about Baker’s 28 days subbing in Maine classrooms. Baseless, out this summer, tracks his efforts to use the Freedom of Information Act to document the U.S. government’s germ-warfare programs. That task takes a toll — Baker gets the sense government agencies use redaction as a form of “psychological warfare” on historians and journalists. But interspersed throughout the book, and set against a confounding morass of bureaucracy and secrecy, are musings on the subtle pleasures of Maine from the 63-year-old Baker, who lives in Veazie and enjoys watching the sun rise over the Penobscot River. 

Maine plays an interesting role in the book. How did you end up here?

We were living in Berkeley, California, and looking in New England for a place to live, somewhere less expensive than the Bay Area, and the real estate agent suggested we check out South Berwick. We found this house and lived there for 20 years, raised our kids there. A wonderful place. Very drafty, incredibly cold in the winter, difficult to plow. An 18th-century house, so all the troubles. A barn that started to collapse. The time came to move, which is how we got up here outside of Bangor, on the Penobscot. But we came to Maine because my wife likes this coastline, and I’ve become a total convert to it. It happens to be a state, I don’t know how to say this without sounding sappy, but it’s the first place I’ve lived since I was a kid where I really feel that this is a place I belong, a place I understand. 

Why did you give this heavily researched, deep dive of a book such a diaristic feel? I was reminded of the protagonist in [Baker’s 2009 novel] The Anthologist and his dictum to write down the best thing that has happened in a day — which in Baseless is usually a walk with your dogs or a turn of the weather. 

I think what I was trying to do is first solve the problem of writing about something totally chaotic and insane like the history of secrecy in the United States and germs and scientists. And then, how does one actually think about history? If you’re doing complicated research, the way it works is you wake up in the morning and one day you might be thinking about tobacco disease in Cuba, the next day it might be Guatemala, and in the meantime the continuous thread is one’s own life. So I was trying to give a truer picture of what it’s like to be a historian living a humdrum life, writing about momentous secrets. I’m interested in that strange juxtaposition. 

In one entry, you say that, even with all the government stonewalling, your curiosity hasn’t died. Is that still true? 

I’ll probably keep going on it, because I think more documents will come out as a result of the book, or that’s what I hope. But I have a larger wish, maybe it’s a crazy wish: anything that is older than 50 years, declassify it all. It would so enrich our sense of our own country. First of all, we would find people who objected to things that were bad. For example, people in the CIA who felt that the CIA’s intervention in Guatemala was a terrible mistake. We need to hear those voices. We need to hear the rich stew of institutional history, and the only way that can happen is if all the documents are declassified. My secret hope is that the book can help along some sort of enhanced retrospection, that the country can look back and see what actually happened and then use that richer knowledge to understand what is happening now. 

Baseless is out July 21 from Penguin Press. $30. Hardcover. nicholsonbaker.com