The cover design for Nicholson Baker’s new essay collection is all wrong. It shows a set of colourful gears jammed by a wrench with the word “essays” written on it—but this is the exact opposite way Baker’s writing functions. He’s never been interested in disrupting culture, or, indeed, the world. Rather, the 55-year-old Maine author quietly slips in and relays how things are already functioning. He prefers colour in motion, and machinery that whirs at top speed. The new book’s title, The Way the World Works, is far more apt, if self-consciously grandiose.
And yet it gets off to a very rocky start. Compiled from the last 15 years of Baker’s freelance career, and divided into five major sections—”Life,” “Reading,” “Libraries and Newspapers,” “Technology,” and “War”—the collection opens with Baker at his very Bakeriest, writing old-timey odes to string, coins in fountains, earplugs, and rotary telephones. Fans may put up with it, but I don’t know how I could justify these pieces to someone encountering Baker’s writing for the first time. He sounds approximately forty thousand years old.
(On the other hand, has anyone else realized that Baker is basically the forefather of Thought Catalog? Please, nobody tell him this website exists: if he ever stumbles upon it, he may never find enough time to write another book.)
Once Baker finds a subject beyond his own vaseline-lensed memory, however, the book springs to life. Several pieces revisit his fixation on libraries and the disposable fate of old newspapers, but here Baker brings a welcome sharpness and journalistic clarity to the problem. His recent beloved investigations into Wikipedia, the Kindle, and the violent video games adored by his teenage son have also been collected. So, too, has an overlooked 2011 profile of New Yorker editor David Remnick, from the British magazine PORT, which is short and beguiling at every turn; I admired it much more the second time through.
What’s obvious in each piece is Baker’s incredible focus on the subject at hand. In the book’s foreword he mentions an early non-fiction attempt that “tootled around in a ruminative way”—that’s as true as ever, but there’s an impressive mental vice grip taking place beneath that rambling, folksy cadence. In “Kindle 2,” Baker spends what must be hours patiently downloading difficult-to-digitize textbooks and reporting on the various ways in which their graphic elements don’t translate to e-readers; a memorable example is Selected Nuclear Materials and Engineering Systems, which Baker downloaded (presumably on the New Yorker's dime) for more than $8,000 USD. Entire figures are, he concludes, “totally illegible.”
For his piece about gondolas in Venice, Baker gets it in his head to track down the man whom he employed on his honeymoon, more than a decade earlier, and then interviews several members of his family who are also in the business. Later, he casually mentions attending a conference devoted to traffic bylaws and speed limits in the canals. A whole conference! What a wonderful man.
The Way the World Works wraps up with three moving essays about pacifism and violence, and then one final piece about mowing the lawn that tootles as if its life depended on it. “I like mowing the lawn,” Baker explains in the foreword, “and it didn’t seem quite right to end the book with an impressionistic article on my unsuccessful efforts to master a series of violent video games.”
Maybe not, but you should read “Painkiller Deathstreak” anyway. Plus, that story ends with the sentence “I miss grass”—and what could be a more fitting ending to a Nicholson Baker book than that?
Simon & Schuster, 336 pp, $28.99, hardcover