Nicholson Baker’s new collection of essays is witty and whimsical, serious and insightful, and often polemical.
The novelist’s first collection of essays since 1996, “The Way the World Works” is divided into sections called “Life,” “Reading,” “Libraries and Newspapers,” “Technology,” “War,” and “Last Essay.”
In that last essay, “Mowing,” Baker says he wants to write a short book for children and adults called “The Way the World Works.” “It would explain everything about history, beauty, wickedness, invention, and the meaning of life.”
The essays in “Life” are mini-meditations on Baker’s life. In the allegorical “String,” Baker recalls the joy and challenge of flying a kite as a child and always wanting more from the kite, for it to fly higher. Baker plugs his phone-sex novel “Vox,” (1992) in a tiny and droll reminiscence on his fascination for the telephone; in another piece he makes treasure hunting at the dump sound thrilling.
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In the section called “Reading,” Baker discusses telling the truth in nonfiction, fiction, and journalism, as he writes about Daniel Defoe, the first fiction writer to pass off his fiction as nonfiction. In “I Said to Myself” and “No Step” he ruminates on whether to use quotes, double-quotes, or no quotes at all in dialogue, and he obsesses over the warning NO STEP on airplane wings everywhere, magically making punctuation and warning signs fascinating.
There’s a eulogy of sorts to John Updike, about whom Baker wrote the book “U and I” (1991), and a homage to David Remnick, the fifth editor of The New Yorker, “one of the three great contributions the United States has made to world civilization. The other two are, of course, ‘Some Like it Hot’ and the iPhone.”
The most compelling pieces are the longer, more serious, essays in “Libraries and Newspapers,” “Technology,” and “War.” Baker condemns libraries' junking old newspapers, magazines, and thousands of books for no good reason, and he mourns the demise of the newspaper.
Baker’s “Technology” essays include a piece on the evolution of the incredible “idiosyncratic, careful, messy, funny, shocking” Wikipedia — all adjectives that aptly describe Baker’s writing.
If you like an author, you forgive his missteps, so forgive Baker for his last novel, “House of Holes,” and read the stuff in his new collection; the book doesn’t explain everything about life, but it certainly gives many heartfelt hints.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at email@example.com.
‘The Way the World Works’
Essays by Nicholson Baker
Published by Simon & Schuster, 304 pages; $24.99