On Nicholson Baker’s The Way the World Works

‘I want to write a short book called The Way the World Works’, writes Nicholson Baker in a self-reflexive addendum to a short book called The Way the World Works, a collection of essays spanning fifteen years and containing such miscellaneous pieces as an apologia for pacifism, a tribute to the late John Updike, and a review of the ‘first-person shooter’ video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. This book, says Baker, will be for ‘children and adults’ and will explain everything about ‘history, beauty, wickedness, invention, the meaning of life’. Of course, the actual book falls some distance short of that ambition, though as a showcase for the various obsessions to which the ambition gives rise it is excellent.

For Baker is nothing if not obsessive. In his fiction and non-fiction alike, he indulges his enthusiasms to the point of fetishism, and in novels such as Vox, The Fermata and (his latest) House of Holes indulges his fetishism to the point of exhaustion. This intermittent monomania coexists with a breathtaking range of interests. (In a profile of its current editor, David Remnick, he suggests that The New Yorker ‘is one of the three great contributions the United States has made to world civilisation’, the others being – ‘of course’ – Some Like It Hot and the iPhone.) Catholicity and meticulousness combined, Baker is a one-man Wikipedia.

Above all, and as his title suggests, he wants to find out how things work. Thus, in one of the personal essays included at the front of the book, we discover young Nicholson poring over the pocket score of Debussy’s La Mer, ‘to figure out how Debussy did it … How did he turn an orchestra, a prickly ball of horsehair and old machinery, into something that splashed and surged, lost its balance and regained it?’ Elsewhere, he tries to get to grips (and help to shape) Wikipedia itself, entering a series of esoteric frays over articles recommended for deletion (Baker is an ‘inclusionist’) and fiddling with a range of other articles besides. (‘After bovine hormones, I tinkered a little with the plot summary of the article on Sleepless in Seattle, while watching the movie. A little later I made some adjustments to the intro on hydraulic fluid …’) His enthusiasm for the process is infectious, and affecting. Wikipedia, he writes, was ‘an effort to build something that made sense apart from one’s own opinion, something that helped the whole human cause roll forward.’ It flourishes because it is ‘a shrine to altruism’.

Another reason Baker loves Wikipedia is that it combines new information technology with scholarship from older sources, fragments of which persist within it ‘like those stony bits of classical buildings incorporated in a medieval wall’. An enthusiast for fresh technology, Baker is nevertheless a champion of traditional libraries and archives as well, and a tenacious critic of the way in which libraries have set about reducing their stocks in the rush towards microfilming and digitisation. One of the best pieces in The Way the World Works, ‘Truckin’ for the Future’, is on precisely this topic, while others celebrate old newspapers (of which Baker now has his own archive), papermaking and longhand transcription. There is also an idiosyncratic meditation on direct and indirect thought reportage – on the advantages of old-style thought-as-speech (‘“I just don’t know any more,” he thought’) as against the more modern paraphrase method (‘He was no longer entirely confident that he knew’). Even here the experimental novelist cannot suppress his inner traditionalist, urging us not to ‘utterly rule out the blameless embrasure of those curlies’.

Baker’s own skill with the written word is spectacularly on show throughout these essays, which are peppered with passages of brilliant description. The most mundane experiences – unfolding a newspaper, inserting an earplug, ‘slow dancing’ a filing cabinet into place – can illicit strophes of rare beauty. Here, for example, is Baker’s description of a sewing machine in action:

When you floored the Singer’s pedal, the down-darting lever in the side of the machine rose and fell so fast that it became two ghost levers, one at the top of its transit and one at the bottom, and the yanked spool on top responded by hopping and twirling on its spindle, flinging its close-spiralled life away.

‘Poetry is prose in slow motion’, says the narrator in The Anthologist, Baker’s 2009 novel. I’m not sure that’s true, but passages such as these lend more than a dollop of credence to the position. Certainly, Baker’s descriptive prose has much in common with poetry, arresting the moment and throwing the reader into a new relationship with the world – pressing ‘refresh’, as it were, on reality.

‘Curiosity is a way of ordering and indeed paring down the wildness of the world’ writes Baker in his final essay. A testament to his curiosity, his simple euphoria upon finding things out, and his ability to communicate his findings to the reader, The Way the World Works is a marvellous book.

Nicholson Baker, The Way the World Works: Essays
Simon and Schuster; $29.99; 317pp


First published in The Australian.