In Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, Nicholson Baker explains the world’s long, terrible spiral into the cataclysm that was the Second World War. It is a pointillist’s history of the march to war, drawing on a vast number of speeches, memoirs, diaries, newspaper and magazine articles, and other primary sourcesmuch of it material from pacifists, protesters, and relief workers that is overlooked by traditional histories. Each of the book’s 475 pages contains a vignette or two that captures an attitude, a feeling, an opinion, a decision, or an event that was expressed or took place between 1914 and the end of 1941. Skeptical of historians”Sometimes I think historians are a little like saute chefs,” the author told the New York Times a week before the book’s publication.

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Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.