The Way the World Works

The way I was educated, maybe from just inhaling something in the air back then, I grew up believing that E. B. White occupied the apex of essay writing. I was not alone in this. On January 17, 1954, in the pages of The New York Times Book Review, Irwin Edman opined: “It is high time to declare roundly what a good many people have long suspected, that E. B. White is the finest essayist in the United States. He says wise things gracefully; he is the master of an idiom at once exact and suggestive, distinguished yet familiar. His style is crisp and tender, and incomparably his own.”

So for me and my generation, reading books like One Man’s Meat and The Second Tree from the Corner stamped us indelibly. Imprinted by that glorious prose and humble yet learned sensibility, we embraced high standards forever associated with that one name.

Nicholson Baker is a scant three years younger than I, and so I expect he feels generationally much the same way about White’s essays. Confirmation of my hypothesis arrives in his new book, The Way the World Works, where he achieves superb results on a par and simpatico with White’s sturdy, eternal, captivating prose. (Another obvious and acknowledged influence is John Updike.) Such striving and accomplishment surely could not have arisen without the influential vision of the shining essayistic temple built by White on Mount Parnassus. But now White needs to scoot over slightly on his Parnassian throne to accommodate Baker’s sacred rump.

The first section of Baker’s book is titled “Life” and contains charming autobiographical pieces. “Reading” follows, with thoughts not only on books but words cut loose from their texts, as in dictionaries. “Libraries and Newspapers” chronicles a recent portion of Baker’s life for which he’s become well known, defending these two venerable institutions in a digital age. The segue from here to “Technology” is a natural one, allowing Baker to discuss myriad matters, from gondolas to Google to e-readers. Somewhat unpredictably, a penultimate section is devoted to “War,” and is host to musings not only on pacifism but also on the allure of shoot-’em-up videogames. One final piece, “Mowing,” stands solo under the rubric “The Last Essay.” Baker elegiacally limns a fleeting moment of epiphany when all the world makes sense. At such times, he tells us, he fantasizes about capturing it all in a book to be titled The Way the World Works. Et voilà!

Baker performs a number of prosaical feats splendidly, sometimes nearly simultaneously in the same piece. He conjures up vanished times and places such as his Rochester, New York childhood with aching precision and color (“String” and “Coins”). He gives us the fabled Melvillean “shock of recognition” as he brings into sharp focus commonplaces that we all overlook, such as the obscure wordage painted on airplane wings (“No Step”). Conversely, he can take something we all acknowledge as familiar and dull and invest it with newly perceived layers of numinosity, as in “Why I Like the Telephone.” He makes his recondite enthusiasms ours, when, for instance, he discourses on the wonder of the New York Sunday World newspaper archives (“Take a Look at This Airship!”) or debates the proper punctuation connected with internal thoughts in fiction (“I Said to Myself”). He gives us excellent, vivid journalism, as in his tribute to New Yorker editor David Remnick and his account of extinct Maine papermills (“Papermakers”). And he ventures almost into poetry with the bite-sized vignettes of “One Summer.”

This is a highly quotable book. Baker’s well-wrought sentences invite repeating, much in the manner whereby he finds himself collecting the brilliant utterances of others (“Narrow Ruled”). Space constraints limit me to one or two almost random bits: “A tree was balancing big buds on the finger-ends of its curving branches; the brown bud coverings, which looked like gecko skins, were drawing back to reveal inner loaves of magnolilial pinkness.” And it should be mentioned that at times Baker harkens back to a more distant essayist, S. J. Perelman. “All potential romance has been realigned in favor of the presiding gondolier himself. Male passengers are adjuncts, balding lumps of flesh with wallets.”

Curiously, but perhaps not unintentionally, this book’s title and cover imagery evoke David Macaulay’s famous bestseller The Way Things Work. And just like Macaulay with his drawings, Baker, naïvely eager yet wise, employs his precise and evocative words to cherish and dissect, illuminate and interpret, gild and strip down things common and uncommon in such a manner that we appreciate what a splendid creation we inhabit.

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.