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A Box of Matches: A Novel (Baker, Nicholson) Hardcover – January 7, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

One man's simple, colloquial meditations on his past, his family, and his life's daily minutia are the substance of Nicholson Baker's A Box of Matches. Feeling that life is passing him by, Emmett, a middle-aged medical textbook editor, decides to wake up early each day to sit by a fire in his country house and record his thoughts in a diary. "Good morning," Emmett begins, "it's January and its 4:17 a.m., and I'm going to sit here in the dark." From this vantage point, Emmett reflects stream-of-consciousness style on whatever occurs to him, no matter how mundane: his recent trip to Home Depot, how he met his wife, the habits of the family duck. Routines, such as how he makes his morning coffee in the dark or picks up his underwear with his toes, are described with childlike reverence and directness. All told, nothing much happens in A Box of Matches, which seems to be the point. Baker is more interested in the idea that for many, life is made up of such apparent trivialities, and that only by pausing to appreciate them can anyone gain any lasting satisfaction. Baker emphasizes this through the moments of understated wisdom and joy that Emmett derives from ordinary occurrences, such as the daylight through the window: "a simple light that goes everywhere but with no heat, aware that it is taken for granted and content to be so." This is the philosophical equivalent of a one-joke premise, however, and there are moments when Emmett's naiveté and laundry list-like narrative wear thin. Likely understanding this, Baker has wisely kept things short. A curious, often charming novel, A Box of Matches will inspire some readers, while inspiring frustration in others. --Ross Doll

From Publishers Weekly

The science of the insignificant has always been Baker's field of study. Treading a fine line between microcosmic dazzlement and banality, he has carved out a minuscule kingdom for himself. After his recent excursion into nonfiction (the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Double Fold), he returns to fiction with a novel in the classic Baker tradition. For Emmett, a 44-year-old father and textbook editor, the predawn wintry darkness is an invitation to musings and meditations on life's events-make that nonevents. Each chapter begins virtually identically ("Good morning, it's 4:45 a.m...."), with Emmett reflecting on something as he sips coffee and warms himself by the fire: the family's pet duck, outside in the cold; a well-worn briefcase; an alternative career as a lichen expert; the idea of collecting paper towel designs. His family-two children and wife Claire-occasionally appear in his ruminations, and his love for them is palpable. But they never emerge as more than background figures, because Emmett's preoccupation is with himself; at one point, he (literally) gathers lint from his navel. Baker struggles to manufacture drama ("Last night my sleep was threatened by a toe-hole in my sock"), and his prose is evocative (a match bursting into flame becomes a "dandelion head of little sparks"). He is such an excellent writer, a master of descriptive detail with an unusual perspective on the world, that he can almost be forgiven for his tendency to focus on the mundane-almost. Emmett's life may seem rich to him, but it isn't rich enough to propel an entire novel. Even readers with a weakness for Baker's particular brand of minutiae may find themselves hoping that next time he will find a subject worthier of his prose.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Series: Baker, Nicholson
  • Hardcover: 178 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (January 7, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375502874
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375502873
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,099,435 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I've written thirteen books, plus an art book that I published with my wife, Margaret Brentano. The most recent one is a comic sex novel called House of Holes, which came out in August 2011. Before that, in 2009, there was The Anthologist, about a poet trying to write an introduction to an anthology of rhyming verse, and before that was Human Smoke, a book of nonfiction about the beginning of World War II. My first novel, The Mezzanine, about a man riding an escalator at the end of his lunch hour, came out in 1988. I'm a pacifist. Occasionally I write for magazines. I grew up in Rochester, New York and went to Haverford College, where I majored in English. I live in Maine with my family.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By "50cent-haircut" on January 17, 2003
Format: Hardcover
There are 33 matches in a box, hence the 33 chapters in this book. Every morning (each chapter), Emmett, a medical textbook editor (with a pet duck), lights a match to start a fire in the fireplace. Each chapter starts with a 'Good morning', and then minute observations on minutiae of life from an ordinary man.
Nicholson Baker's prose is effortless and light. He's probably one of the most elegant prose stylists writing today, and he clearly has written a gem with this one. His comic sensibility is sneaky and fun, and I found myself laughing out loud in public places while thinking about passages from this book.
The contemplation of details of life and the tangential fantasies that spring from mundane activities lead to subtle and touching refletions on life itself. This book is, above all, about what makes life worth baring. And the book's ultimate accomplishment is that it bares the beauty of life without resorting to building a dramatic resolution or an epiphany, but rather shows life as is, quietly and truthfully. One of the most pleasurable reads of this past few years.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By J Scott Morrison HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I had never read anything of Nicholson Baker's before this book, primarily because I remembered reading a review of his earliest book, Mezzanine, in which, as I recall, the whole book takes place in the mind of someone while they're riding an escalator. I thought to myself that, after almost forty years of listening to stream-of-consciousness as a psychiatrist, I didn't need to read it, too. And so Baker was on my To Be Avoided list. But something about this book called out to me and I got it. I'm grateful that I did.
The book has no plot - it is simply the thoughts of a middle-aged man moving about his house in the dark very early each morning as he makes a fire and then sits in front of it before anyone else in the family is awake. And since I tend to potter around my house in the dark, very early, thinking my own thoughts, that appealed to me. What I didn't expect was that Baker's character, Emmett - who is, of course, Mr Baker himself - was thinking MY thoughts, or very often so. I had so much 'shock of recognition' here that it was eerie.
His character's thoughts are not the neurotic sort made famous - and slightly repellent - by Proust or Joyce. They are the thoughts of a basically normal, healthy middle-aged family man. Beyond that, Baker's ability to notice usually unnoticed and unremarked things, and then describe them not only accurately but in evocative language has now made it necessary for me to go back and read everything he's written. I look forward to it.
Scott Morrison
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Haugh VINE VOICE on April 7, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a beautiful little story. Early every morning for 33 mornings a man, Emmett, gets up, makes a cup of coffee, lights a fire and thinks. As a reader, we get to participate in Emmett's simple, yet detailed, musings on his life. While doing so we develop a picture of a man with more clarity than most characters in modern fiction. This is a story well worth reading.
Unfortunately, it is difficult for me to get past the fact that I spent [$$] on what is basically a short story. A small book with widely spaced lines of 178 pages--I didn't do a word count but I would have been much happier if I had read this as part of an anthology of other stories.
I am a big fan of Nicholson Baker. I think he is one of the best writers of prose in America today. Therefore, I ultimately don't regret having purchased and read this story. But if I were not a fan of Baker, I might feel a little ripped off. It might be better to start with one of his other books like Nory or Double Fold.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By "neeterskeeter27" on June 5, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Nicholson Baker's
A Box of Matches is based on a very simple premise. Emmett, a text-book editor nearing middle age, decided that every morning, he will wake up very early just to think. He ponders his life, and life in general, while burning a fire in his fireplace. When the box of matches used to light the fire is finished, so is his habit of waking up early just to think.
Sound simple? It is. Sound too simple? It isn't. This deceptively simple plot actually makes for an exciting, yet relaxing read. The novel flows smoothly and quickly. While the reader reads about Emmett's thought, she or he also learns intimate details about his personal life. We see his close relationship with his wife Claire. We see his daily interactions with their teenage daughter, young son, and pet duck. Baker also adds funny comments to Emmett's thoughts, which allow us to get to know his quirky and witty personality.
The novel is short, which adds to its eligibility as a summer reading choice. Admittedly, no one would want to read a 400 page book about one man's thoughts. As a short novel, however, the book is a well-written literary portrait of one man's life and character. The book also tends to inspire readers to get up earlier, to read and write more often, to enjoy life, and most importantly- to simply stop and think.
If you are looking for an enjoyable and relaxing book to read this summer,
A Box of Matches is one book you are sure to like. It is a perfect book to read while at the beach, in the bathtub, on an airplane, or simply during your own early morning "think time."
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