• Human Smoke

  • The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
  • By: Nicholson Baker
  • Narrated by: Norman Dietz
  • Length: 14 hrs and 12 mins
  • 4.3 out of 5 stars (180 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Human Smoke delivers a closely textured, deeply moving indictment of the treasured myths that have romanticized much of the 1930s and '40s. Incorporating meticulous research and well-documented sources---including newspaper and magazine articles, radio speeches, memoirs, and diaries---the book juxtaposes hundreds of interrelated moments of decision, brutality, suffering, and mercy. Vivid glimpses of political leaders and their dissenters illuminate and examine the gradual, horrifying advance toward overt global war and Holocaust.

Praised by critics and readers alike for his exquisitely observant eye and deft, inimitable prose, Baker has assembled a narrative within Human Smoke that unfolds gracefully, tragically, and persuasively. This is an unforgettable book that makes a profound impact on our perceptions of historical events and mourns the unthinkable loss humanity has borne at its own hand.

©2008 Nicholson Baker (P)2008 Tantor
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

Critic Reviews

"Serious and conscientious.... An eloquent and passionate assault on the idea that the deliberate targeting of civilians can ever be justified." (The New York Times)
"This quite extraordinary book---impossible to put down, impossible to forget---may be the most compelling argument for peace ever assembled." (Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman)

What listeners say about Human Smoke

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Not a "History Book" per se

This is a well read, informative book about WWII and related events. It is not a history book so much as a series of stories and anecdotes bringing the era to life. If you are interested in the flow of events moving to WWII, but don't like typical "history" this book might be for you.

5 people found this helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Disappointing for Baker fans and historians

I count myself among Baker's biggest fans. I find both his fiction and non-fiction smart and funny. However, Human Smoke was neither in the funny camp nor in the smart camp.

There is no question that Baker did a tremendous amount of research, and, true to his nature, he went after the juciest of details--the way Roosevelt stood, or how Hitler was dressed in certain important events. In that way, certainly, some scenes came alive.

Baker's perspective, on the surface, was journalistic. His aim appeared to be to reporting "just the facts, ma'am." However, by so drawing such a clear pictured of the anti-semitic milieu in the U.S. in the late 30's (leading up to the second World War), which is a topic that is sometimes expunged from the discussion, he does take a position. At the same time, he spends much of his time talking about the anti-war effort in the U.S. before the war, which is to take a position as well.

His ideological perspectives didn't bother me, then; both interested me. It was simply that there was no analysis of the events. Here's the pattern of much of the reporting:

Mrs. X of anti-war group y protested with 56 people in Times Square. It was November 1939.

And then he would move on to the next topic.

That kind of laundry list approach made the book feel less like the work of a journalist or a historian and more like a the book report of a student who flipped through books and jotted down the facts he saw without considering their meaning.

I'm truly disapointed with such work from such a fine, capable writer.

4 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

A great book

This book was mind boggling and beautifully read...

Althoguh not a history bookin the classic sense, it is a must read to understand the insanity of war...

One of the best audio books that I have enjoyed!!

4 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

The actual reality of U.S. entrance into WW2.

I'm no longer surprised to learn that commonly accepted truths are merely the biased narrative told by their author.

This book is legitimately "just the facts" of the events in years and days leading to December 31, 1941. Absent are glorious celebrations of D-Day and concentration camp liberation.

Their absence is appropriate since an understanding of the facts leads one to the calm realization that the bombing of pearl harbor was predictable and perhaps expected.

Equally unsurprising is learning that the attempted extermination of the Jews that came to be known as the Holocaust wasn't pursued in earnest and may have directly resulted from the U.S. entering the war.

Accordingly, the patriotic messaging received by unknowing school children is mostly a fairy tale since the U.S. was a not-so-passive participant in the war long before it was formally declared.

Universally untaught is U.S. participation as mostly the consequence of perceived German ambitions for global conquest regardless of its inanity.

The U.S. "saving" the Jews and expediting their trip to death camps are not mutually exclusive facts. The fact of the camps alone was not a rallying cry.

I'd say shame on the U.S., but it's more accurate to say shame on us for continuing to support American empire in light of the countless lies and half-truths we *know* we have historicallly been and continue to be told in pursuit of military conflict.

2 people found this helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Misses the point

I hate war too. But baker bends too far over backward in damning churchill (and FDR). No "peace" would have stopped Hitlers genocidal war, it would just have given the Nazis more time.
But the source material is useful. And surely the Allies were lacking in critical ways, but not because they did not take up Hitler's hypocritical offers of compromise.
Other books do a better job of showing this.

2 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Greatest WW2 book ever

Such a different story and a different approach.
One of the best WW2 books ever.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Fascinating New Approach

A truly different approach to World War II, not just in content, but in structure and style. Human Smoke will remind you just how many sides there really are to any story.

1 person found this helpful

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  • g
  • 06-14-22

New perspective

Human Smoke gives a very interesting perspective of the lead-up to the entry of the US into WW2. You will come out of this book thinking that almost no one is innocent.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Powerful and incredibly moving

One of the best approaches to World War II I have read. Thoroughly researched and beautifully written, it is a scary investigation of the genesis and pursuance of World War II.
One comment re the narration: Why don't producers and readers thoroughly research the pronunciation of proper names, particularly in a work such as this? For instance:
Duncan Sandys - correct pronunciation: Sands.
Lord Cadogan - correct pronunciation: Ca - duggan.

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Accurate histories blossom between the lines.

I have always loved this editorial. It juxtaposes conflicting news articles, quotes from famous and notorious figures, and worldviews from key influencers amid WWI and WWII. We must glance back at our forebears on occasion and distill not only their wisdom but their cautionary tales.