Nicholson Baker's 'The Way the World Works': on Wikipedia and weddings
Nicholas Baker's new essay collection "The Way the World Works" takes on subjects as diverse as Wikipedia and the author's wedding in Venice.
Special to The Seattle Times
'The Way the World Works'
by Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster, 304 pp., $25
In both fiction and nonfiction, Nicholson Baker distills the minutiae of daily life into highly original art. His novels bear this out — "Room Temperature" takes place inside a guy's head as he feeds his daughter a bottle, and "The Mezzanine" follows the thoughts of a man as he rides a department-store escalator. And then there's the saucy stuff, like "Vox" and "House of Holes," which merges Baker's knack for satire with a keen interest in sex.
In both cases, Baker's daunting intelligence and meticulous observation springboard us into broader territory. The premise of these books sounds pretentious, but his work is rich, down to earth, bemused and, as a bonus, hilarious.
His nonfiction books are similarly zesty and distinctive. "U&I," for example, bounces Baker's admiration for John Updike into a risky, self-baring contemplation on, among other topics, the mysteries of memory. And his essays, notably the collection "The Size of Thoughts," display the same painstaking techniques and bold, lucid prose. Who knew a piece on nail clippers could be so gripping?
Baker's new essay collection, "The Way the World Works," is always absorbing, merging his interest in solid, tangible objects with his devotion to the life of the mind. (For better or worse, these essays don't have dirty bits.)
Take "The Charms of Wikipedia," which riffs on his delight with that phenomenon and its messy, yeasty potential to level the playing field of global knowledge.
Baker's defense of the notoriously inconsistent Wikipedia is surprising, since elsewhere he has taken strong stands against the dumbing-down of libraries and in favor of periodical preservation.
Or take a pair of touching personal essays involving Baker's wife. One has the unambiguous title "How I Met My Wife." She was walking up the stairs of a college dorm, and he was carrying a bicycle down. Characteristically, he remembers the tick of the bike's slowly revolving wheel.
The other marriage-related essay is "Grab Me a Gondola." It starts out by describing their wedding in Venice: Baker's bride and her father cross the canal toward him, as if walking down the aisle; after the ceremony, the newlyweds take a few crushingly-expensive-but-worth-it celebratory gondola rides by themselves. Baker then cruises in two directions. The first is a profile of their garrulous gondola pilot, who carries on a tradition that has been passed from father to son for generations. Then Baker describes a gondola-making workshop, complete with a careful study of the building process.
A few of the pieces here are forgettable. An example is "One Summer," a set of fragments in which each paragraph starts with "One summer ... " and goes on to relate, with puzzling diffidence, a series of inconsequential remarks.
But only a few of these pieces are that light. For the vast majority of the time, "The Way the World Works" is simply dazzling.
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