Med­i­ta­tions of a cu­ri­ous poly­math

The Way the World Works: Es­says

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

By Ni­chol­son Baker Si­mon & Schus­ter, 317pp, $29.99 WANT to write a short book called The Way the World Works,’’ de­clares Amer­i­can writer Ni­chol­son Baker in a self-re­flex­ive ad­den­dum to this short book called The Way the World Works, a col­lec­tion of es­says span­ning 15 years and con­tain­ing mis­cel­la­neous pieces such as an apolo­gia for paci­fism, a trib­ute to 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’’. 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 non­fic­tion alike, he in­dulges his en­thu­si­asms to the point of fetishism, and in nov­els such as Vox, The Fer­mata and, most re­cently, 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 present 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 one­man Wikipedia.

Above all, and as his ti­tle sug­gests, he wants to find out how things work. Thus, in one of the per­sonal es­says 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 with (and help to shape) Wikipedia it­self, en­ter­ing 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 are 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 elicit 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.

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