The collection of essays may not cover new ground, but it's an illuminating testament to an endlessly seeking author.
Author Nicholson Baker. (Ulf Andersen / Getty Images )
The Way the World Works
Simon & Schuster: 319 pp., $25
Nicholson Baker's new book, "The Way the World Works," is a miscellany: a collection of 34 essays originally published in magazines such as the New Yorker, McSweeney's and the American Scholar between 1996 and 2011. And yet, as Baker makes clear in the final essay, "Mowing," there is method to his madness, a shape that becomes fully apparent only with the book's closing lines. "I want to write a short book called 'The Way the World Works,'" he declares there. "I want it to be a book for children and adults, that explains everything about history, beauty, wickedness, invention, the meaning of life. … I know it isn't really simple, and I know I'll never write the book. … [But] once in a while, as on a perfect morning such as this, you'll have the rapturous illusion that everything you know adds up."
Here we see Baker's aesthetic in a nutshell: whimsical, self-reflective, always looking at the line between imagination and reality; it's an aesthetic of connection, of possibility. It helps that "Mowing" echoes, in its focus on domesticity and (yes) even lawn care, the first essay in the collection, which gives the book a kind of frame. But more important is a sense of indirection: This is a random collection, Baker is telling us, that turns out not to be so random, in much the same way as the world it seeks to explain.
Baker, to be sure, has long practiced the art of indirection. His first novel, "The Mezzanine," tells of a man buying shoelaces on his lunch break — although really, it's about much more than that. "U and I" meditates on his fascination with John Updike by relying less on research than on memory: What, Baker asks, did Updike mean to him? Perhaps my favorite of his books, 2010's "The Anthologist," offers an extended monologue by a poet with writer's block that becomes the very piece its narrator is unable to write.
What these works share is a sense that how we think, our idiosyncratic dance with both experience and memory, defines who we are. This is a key to "The Way the World Works" as well. "Curiosity is a way of ordering and indeed paring down the wildness of the world," Baker tells us, and throughout the collection, he takes us through a number of his obsessions and fascinations — family, newspapers, the fate of libraries — many of which have emerged in his writing before.
In that sense, and not unlike his first book of essays, "The Size of Thoughts" (1996), "The Way the World Works" is an act of literary cartography: Baker mapping his own mind. The essays range from a page or two in length ("Writing Wearing Earplugs," the delightful "How I Met My Wife") to extended meditations on video games, Wikipedia and the Kindle. Baker draws on a host of antecedents, giving "The Way the World Works" the feel of a commonplace book — a book, in other words, of impressions, grouped in loose categories.
There is, of course, an essay on such books, where Baker describes his habit of transcribing passages from his reading. And throughout the collection, he echoes other writers' work. "One Summer" brings to mind Joe Brainard's "I Remember," with its suite of loosely connected memories, while "String" recalls Annie Dillard's "An American Childhood" in its rhapsodic account of how a child's world expands in stages.
And yet, despite the acuity of these connections, there is something about "The Way the World Works" that feels a little scattershot. This is in the nature of collections, but if Baker mitigates that to an extent, some of the pieces here feel repetitious, negligible. Most troublesome is a glowing portrait of New Yorker editor David Remnick, for whom Baker wrote six of the essays in the book. I have no doubt that Remnick is a terrific editor, but there is something gratuitous, even fawning, about such a profile. Problematic in a different way are a series of essays on preservation — of libraries, of newspapers — not because they're insubstantial but because Baker has previously covered this territory in such depth.
What, after all, can a 1996 piece on the San Francisco Public Library selling its soul to the digital future have to tell us, when Baker explored a similar theme in his 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning book "Double Fold"? Similarly, a pair of essays on pacifism, the first inspired by the passionate, and often negative, reaction to Baker's 2008 book "Human Smoke" (which argued, in part, that pacifists during World War II were right), don't do much to advance his argument, which, in any case, comes down to a simple formulation: "Pacifism at its best … is 'intensely practical.' Its primary object is the saving of life." Agree or disagree, it reads mostly like a re-iteration — or, at worst, a self-defense.
For all that, I can't help thinking this is as it should be, because in "The Way the World Works," Baker is not out to cover new ground. Rather, he is looking back, trying to find the common territory of his obsessions, the landscape where it all connects.
"I like old things because they are old — their oldness and their fragility is part of what they have to say," he writes in a paean to the daily paper. "They hold the record of the time in which they were printed, and the record of the years that have passed between that time and now." The same could be said about this book. It is not, perhaps, a volume for the uninitiated. But it is a testament to indirection — or, in other words, to the endlessly self-reflective cast of Baker's mind.
This is a book that can't, obviously, deliver on the promise of its title. But the spirit of its title is in keeping with its author: a writer who, for all the fantastical leaps of his fiction, is inexhaustibly curious about the fabric of day-to-day life. Baker looks for the world in a grain of sand – and the more you read him, the better a place that seems to start looking.
Here, among biggish reported pieces and tiny essays, the shortest of which is three paragraphs, is a sketch of Baker's preoccupations. There are five main sections: Life, Reading, Libraries and Newspapers, Technology and War. Even to a Baker fan – and I count myself firmly in that number – this isn't essential Baker, though there are glories. A handful of the articles are still available online, a couple for free (Painkiller Deathstreak, on video games, and The Charms of Wikipedia, one of the standouts), which seems to me a bit of a swizz. Many of the pieces rehearse familiar themes. Why I Am a Pacifist is essentially a footnote to Human Smoke, his provocative book about the second world war. Libraries and Newspapers opens with a shot of cold and meticulous anger about the evisceration of the San Francisco public library – and is followed by another bit that covers similar ground (and if you've read his book Double Fold...).
His account of attending a peace protest in Washington DC opens with an effortfully excellent description of the "pale, squinty, early spring perfection of the day": "The squirrels were out doing seasonal things. A tree was balancing big buds on the finger-ends of its curving branches; the brown bud coverings, which looked like gecko skins, were drawing back to reveal inner loaves of meaty magnolial pinkness." There is your echt Baker – precise, unexpected and comical. But the piece that follows is a report of a peace protest that could be anyone's report of a peace protest.
And yet: there is a ferociously good essay – at once thoughtful and really funny and offhand – on the technical challenges to the novelist of rendering your characters' thoughts. (Italics? Direct quotes? Indirect speech?) He gently mocks the successive literary-historical advances proposing less artificial ways of doing so – as if by changing the punctuation you could vanish the difference between printed prose and neural activity. That essay is all the better for picking its examples with puckish even-handedness between revered classics and airport fiction ("the post-Faulknerians, such as Tom Clancy").
There's a great thing on Daniel Defoe. There's something cute and scholarly on mid-19th-century sensation mags. And there's a review of a book by a guy, Ammon Shea, who spent a year reading the OED cover to cover. The payoff is the work of a man who really knows how to bring a paragraph in to land: "The effect of this book on me was to make me like Ammon Shea and, briefly, to hate English. What a choking, God-awful mash it is! Surely French is better. Then I recovered and saw its greatness afresh. The OED, Shea notes, is 'a catalogue of the foibles of the human condition'. Shea has walked the wildwood of our gnarled, ancient speech and returned singing incomprehensible sounds in a language that turns out to be our own."
Baker is sometimes accused of luddism, but his love for card catalogues is at one with his love of the internet. He completely – completely – sees the point of Wikipedia. He's on the fence about Kindle but ends that essay generously, with a nicely tempered description of losing himself in an airport thriller on the device.
Baker's real position is that what is important isn't a fight between paper and plastic: it's that we pay attention to as much as possible as faithfully as possible. We owe successive generations to understand and pass on what previous generations knew: not just at the level of dates 'n' facts, but breathing humanity. That's why he's angrily nerdy about archives: as he repeatedly emphasises, a run of 1950s newspapers tells you more about what it was like to live in the 1950s than practically anything else on Earth. Yet these objects from the recent past are rarer than first editions of Birds of America.
So this isn't essential Baker. But the nature of Baker's worldview – microscopically and encyclopaedically attentive; morally puritanical; heroically unselfconscious and ingenuous – is one that makes the distinction between essential and inessential moot. If the inessential is where we live, everything is essential.