One of the books I bought in San Francisco recently was Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker, subtitled ‘The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.’ When one of the venture capitalists I was working with in Palo Alto asked me what the heap of books I was carrying included (I had turned down a bag) and heard this title and the book’s theme, he asked why on earth I would want to read another book on WWII? Because, I said, it’s healthy to explore different perspectives on a period of history you think you know quite well.
The title came from something one of Hitler’s generals, Franz Halder, told an interrogator – that when he had been imprisoned in Auschwitz towards the end of the war, “he saw flakes of smoke blow into his cell.” He called it “human smoke.”
And how different Baker’s perspective proved to be, steeped in a pacifism that was largely boiled off in the white heat of war. But full of sorts of things that were totally new to me. A fascinating corrective to jingoistic interpretations of what happened, though I did fret at times that Baker’s dice were heavily loaded and that the reader could almost end up feeling sorry for poor Mr. Hitler.