Virtual Event: Nicholson Baker
My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act
in conversation with CHRISTOPHER LYDON
August 5, 2020
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Harvard Book Store's virtual event series welcomes acclaimed novelist and essayist NICHOLSON BAKER—author of the novels The Mezzanine and The Anthologist and the National Book Critics Circle Award–winning work of non-fiction, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper—for a discussion of his latest book, Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act. He will be joined in conversation by CHRISTOPHER LYDON, host of WBUR's Open Source.
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While payment is not required, we are suggesting a $3 contribution to support this author series, our staff, and the future of Harvard Book Store—a locally owned, independently run Cambridge institution. In addition, by purchasing a copy of Baseless on harvard.com, you support indie bookselling and the writing community during this difficult time.
Eight years ago, while investigating the possibility that the United States had used biological weapons in the Korean War, Nicholson Baker requested a series of Air Force documents from the early 1950s under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Years went by, and he got no response. Rather than wait forever, Baker set out to keep a personal journal of what it feels like to try to write about major historical events in a world of pervasive redactions, witheld records, and glacially slow governmental responses. The result is one of the most original and daring works of nonfiction in recent memory, a singular and mesmerizing narrative that tunnels into the history of some of the darkest and most shameful plans and projects of the CIA, the Air Force, and the presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.
In his lucid and unassuming style, Baker assembles what he learns, piece by piece, about Project Baseless, a crash Pentagon program begun in the early fifties that aimed to achieve "an Air Force-wide combat capability in biological and chemical warfare at the earliest possible date." Along the way, he unearths stories of balloons carrying crop disease, leaflet bombs filled with feathers, suicidal scientists, leaky centrifuges, paranoid political-warfare tacticians, insane experiments on animals and humans, weaponized ticks, ferocious propaganda battles with China, and cover and deception plans meant to trick the Kremlin into ramping up its germ-warfare program. At the same time, Baker tells the stories of the heroic journalists and lawyers who have devoted their energies to wresting documentary evidence from goverment repositories, and he shares anecdotes from his daily life in Maine feeding his dogs and watching the morning light gather on the horizon. The result is an astonishing and utterly disarming story about waiting, bureaucracy, the horrors of war, and, above all, the cruel secrets that the United States government seems determined to keep forever from its citizens.
Praise for Baseless
“The synchronicity is extraordinary, almost chilling: Nicholson Baker’s gripping diary of his endless attempts to ferret out facts relating to the Pentagon’s top-secret biological weapons programs is published while the whole world is suddenly upended and aghast amid a lethal biological attack of an apparently natural origin. I say apparently natural—for as every page of this book is peppered with tales of bizarre weapons (infected feathers, for God’s sake! plague-saturated voles!)—you come away doubting everything the US government ever says. And yet, through it all, Baker tells us with a meticulous diarist’s calm about his dogs and the Maine countryside and the birdsong, and you feel, in the end, everything will be alright, and germ-free.” —Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman
“A luminous meditation on the power of secrets and mysteries. Baker shows us the ways in which a government shielded by a bodyguard of lies threatens the foundations of democracy.” —Tim Weiner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Legacy Of Ashes and The Folly and the Glory
“One of America's most brilliantly creative writers navigates the mirrored labyrinth of government secrecy with a combination of astonishment and rage. Along the way, he discovers an array of long-hidden terrors while balancing the joys of daily life against the dread that envelops all who confront the reality of covert power.” —Stephen Kinzer, author of Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control
Harvard Book Store’s award-winning event series continues online! Named "Best of Boston: 2020 Best Virtual Author Series" by Boston magazine.
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