Book of the Week

Book of the Week: Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine

A close observer of the mundane writes humorously about the products and experiences we encounter every day.

By Tiffany Lambert, Designers & Books December 11, 2013
The Mezzanine Nicholson Baker
1988, Grove/Atlantic

What sugar-packet manufacturer could have known that people would take to flapping the packet back and forth to centrifuge its contents to the bottom, so they could handily tear it at the top?”

That was the problem with reading: you always had to pick up again at the very thing that had made you stop reading the day before.”

The lines dividing one year from another in your past are perforated, and the mental sensation of detaching a period of your life for closer scrutiny resembles the reluctant guided tearing of a perforated seam.”

Shoes are the first adult machines we are given to master.”

Quotes can be found on pages 95, 121, 74, and 17, respectively.

Chart of thoughts the main character. Howie, has by subject. Among them are traffic frustration, earplugs, and vending machines (p. 127).

Once you’ve read Nicholson Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine, originally published in part in The New Yorker in 1986, you’ll never look at a footnote in quite the same way—or many of the mundane experiences we encounter on a daily basis, for that matter. At 135 pages, with no real (or at least traditional) plot, it revels in digressions of footnotes that often take up several pages. The slim, humorous novel follows a hyper-observant main character, Howie, as he rides up an escalator on his way back to work from a lunch break at an unspecified corporate job.

Baker takes us inside Howie’s eccentric and wandering mind of snapped shoelaces, the trouble with paper straws, the ingenuity of sugar packets, a proper way to put on socks, and how to determine the best line to stand in at the grocery store. As Designers & Books contributor Nancye Green commented on her book list, The Mezzanine “illustrates in maddening detail the excruciating fascination with the ordinary as extraordinary.” Another contributor to Designers & Books, Michael Bierut, calls it “My favorite book of product design criticism.”

Sample spread of pages where footnotes are the dominant text (pp. 66–67).
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