The Way the World Works

Overview


New York Times bestselling author Nicholson Baker, “who writes like no one else in America” (Newsweek), has assembled his best nonfiction writing over the last fifteen years, a trove of original and provocative pieces.

The Way the World Works, Nicholson Baker’s second essay collection, ranges over the map of life to examine what ails us, what eases our pain, and what gives us joy. Baker—recently hailed as “one of the most consistently enticing writers of our time” by The New ...

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Overview


New York Times bestselling author Nicholson Baker, “who writes like no one else in America” (Newsweek), has assembled his best nonfiction writing over the last fifteen years, a trove of original and provocative pieces.

The Way the World Works, Nicholson Baker’s second essay collection, ranges over the map of life to examine what ails us, what eases our pain, and what gives us joy. Baker—recently hailed as “one of the most consistently enticing writers of our time” by The New York Times Book Review—moves from political controversy to the intimacy of his own life, from forgotten heroes of pacifism to airplane wings, telephones, paper mills, David Remnick, Joseph Pulitzer, the OED, and the manufacture of the Venetian gondola. In the book’s title essay, Baker surveys our fascination with video games while attempting to beat his teenage son at Modern Warfare 2; in a celebrated essay on Wikipedia, he describes his efforts to stem the tide of encyclopedic deletionism. Through all these pieces (for The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and other publications), Baker shines the light of an inexpugnable curiosity; The Way the World Works is a keen-minded, generous-spirited compendium by a modern American master.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
[The] ability of Baker's—to snatch little impressions in the chopsticks of his prose—is on good display in these essays. Several times he returned to me some sensation from childhood, a feeling I'd forgotten I remembered…[he] is a natural essayist, in the sense that the form hews to his habit of mind…Baker's little moments of slackness (very rare, and noticeable only for that, really) seem to go hand in hand with his greatest strength, namely the confidence of his own mind, the quality that makes him, for me, a fiction writer whose work will always be of the highest interest. He has what Rousseau and, yes, De Quincey had, and what Joan Didion has, the bravery of self-exploration…
—John Jeremiah Sullivan
Publishers Weekly
Whether it’s his two-page reflection on why he likes the telephone, or his heady tome on why he is a pacifist, novelist and essayist Baker (Double Fold, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award) is a delight to read. In this diverse collection of essays, spanning 15 years, Baker offers gorgeous prose and poses important questions about our era of digital readership. As he notes in his essay on the Kindle 2, there is a distinction between a writer’s work and its presentation in book form. Many essays staunchly defend the reading of print books and newspapers, including “Narrow Ruled,” in which he shares how he reads closely—“when I come across something I really like in a book, I put a little dot in the margin.” A proud defender of libraries and newspapers, Baker acknowledges the perception of him as “a weirdo cultist, a ringleader” for books. While his musings on video games and the neighborhood trash dump are memorable, the collection’s real value lies in its essays on reading. Baker practices what he preaches by collecting his own work, so that somewhere, people will be turning paper pages. Though it would have been wonderful if the collection included a new, unpublished essay, readers of this book will still find themselves agreeing with him: books are still worth getting. Agent: Melanie Jackson. (Aug.)
The New York Times Magazine
Baker is one of the most beautiful, original and ingenious prose stylists to have come along in decades . . . and takes a kind of mad scientist's delight in the way things work and how the world is put together.
Charles McGrath
Time
His prose is so luminescent and so precise it manually recalibrates our brains.
Lev Grossman
The Washington Post
Nicholson Baker is such a swell, smart writer that he rarely - maybe never - tips his hand.... In Baker's view the mundane, closely enough observed, may be the skate key to the sublime.
Carolyn See
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Baker writes with appealing charm. He clowns and shows off rambles and pounces hard; he says acute things, extravagant things, terribly funny things.”
Richard Eder
The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Baker is a wise and amiable cultural commentator worth listening to. . . . [his] prose is polished, witty . . . his essays are always provocative and entertaining.
Cynthis Crossen
Los Angeles Times Book Review - Richard Eder
“Baker writes with appealing charm. He clowns and shows off rambles and pounces hard; he says acute things, extravagant things, terribly funny things.”
From the Publisher
“Baker is one of the most beautiful, original and ingenious prose stylists to have come along in decades . . . and takes a kind of mad scientist’s delight in the way things work and how the world is put together.”

“His prose is so luminescent and so precise it manually recalibrates our brains.”

“Nicholson Baker is such a swell, smart writer that he rarely—maybe never—tips his hand. . . . In Baker's view, the mundane, closely enough observed, may be the skate key to the sublime.”

“Baker writes with appealing charm. He clowns and shows off rambles and pounces hard; he says acute things, extravagant things, terribly funny things.”

“[A] winning new book. . . . This singular writer . . . can mount an argument skillfully and deliver an efficient conclusive kick.”

“A fundamentally radical author . . . you can never be sure quite where Baker is going to take you. . . . [He] is an essayist in the tradition of GK Chesterton and Max Beerbohm, writing winning fantasies upon whatever chance thoughts may come into his head.”

“Baker looks at the world around us in a way that is not only artful and entertaining but instructive.”

“Mr. Baker is a wise and amiable cultural commentator worth listening to. . . . [his] prose is polished, witty . . . his essays are always provocative and entertaining.”

“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. . . . simply dazzling.”

“Exhilarating . . . Eye-opening . . . Baker continues his project of bringing new dimensions and idiosyncrasies to the personal essay, which he is devoted to reviving and reinventing.”

Library Journal
Baker is known for his expostulation against the demise of the card catalog, his repatriation of thousands of American newspapers deaccessioned by the British Library (Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper), and for the priapic prose of his porn-for-thinkers novels, e.g., House of Holes. This second collection of his essays, after The Size of Thoughts (1996), is a tapestry of Baker's personal, emotional, and intellectual life. He recalls incidents of childhood and adolescence, and his first encounter with the woman he eventually married in Venice. His watery jaunt to the church later informs an essay on the history and craftsmanship of the gondola. Baker interviews David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, confesses to Wikipedia addiction, matches wits with rogue editors, purchases a Kindle 2, affirms his passion for libraries and newspapers, and expounds his commitment to pacifism. VERDICT Baker's voice is that of a convivially erudite conversationalist seeking comfort in the predictable in a high-tech, ever-changing world. Anyone who delights in reading will be heartened.—Lonnie Weatherby, McGill Univ. Lib., Montreal, Canada
Library Journal
Baker offers a second essay collection that should prove just as thought-provoking, whimsical, and physically detailed as his edgy novels. These essays, which have appeared in publications like The New Yorker, range from political controversy and video games to the invention of the gondola. Smart entertainment.
Kirkus Reviews
The erudite novelist and essayist ponders obsessions both old (newspapers and rare books) and new (Kindle 2, Wikipedia, video games). Very little escapes the attention of Baker (House of Holes, 2012, etc.), whether it's the small details of old jobs, fleeting summers, technology--both dying and cutting edge--or odd but fascinating obscurities. He likes to find the form in abstractions. In "I Said to Myself," he digs away at questions many fiction writers have considered at one time or another: What does a person really sound like when he talks to himself? Are thoughts sentences? Should they be placed between quotes, or was James Joyce right to get rid of those? Baker also wants to preserve the past even as he warily embraces the future. In an essay about gondoliers, he refers to the gondola as "an ancient and noble boat, which summed up many lost beautiful things." Baker is a champion of beauty on the verge of vanishing, whether it involves old newspapers or rare books tossed out by space-squeezed libraries, or Wikipedia entries on forgotten Beat poets. He's against destruction on principle, as he shows in a defense of pacifism, in which he argues that wars only create retribution and violence. An "armistice without victory" would have saved more Jews in World War II, he believes, a deeply felt if unconvincing hindsight proposition. He prefers war as a video game--and who doesn't?--such as Modern Warfare 2, which turns out to be "an unjingoistic, perhaps completely cynical amusement." Not a major work, but a thoughtful collection from a writer who, to quote his own description of Daniel Defoe, has "an enormous appetite for truth and life and bloody specificity."
The San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] winning new book. . . . This singular writer . . . can mount an argument skillfully and deliver an efficient conclusive kick.”
Financial Times (London)
“A fundamentally radical author . . . you can never be sure quite where Baker is going to take you. . . . [He] is an essayist in the tradition of GK Chesterton and Max Beerbohm, writing winning fantasies upon whatever chance thoughts may come into his head.”
The Los Angeles Times
“What these works share is a sense that how we think, our idiosyncratic dance with both experience and memory, defines who we are.”
Charleston Post & Courier
“Baker looks at the world around us in a way that is not only artful and entertaining but instructive.”
The Wall Street Journal - Cynthis Crossen
“Mr. Baker is a wise and amiable cultural commentator worth listening to. . . . [his] prose is polished, witty . . . his essays are always provocative and entertaining.”
The Buffalo News
“If only more of the literary world worked the way Baker does. . . . You cannot deny the courage of the writer. . . . Baker is singular.”
Seattle Times
“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. . . . simply dazzling.”
The Boston Globe
“Exhilarating . . . Eye-opening . . . Baker continues his project of bringing new dimensions and idiosyncrasies to the personal essay, which he is devoted to reviving and reinventing.”
The New York Times Magazine - Charles McGrath
“Baker is one of the most beautiful, original and ingenious prose stylists to have come along in decades . . . and takes a kind of mad scientist's delight in the way things work and how the world is put together.”
Time - Lev Grossman
“His prose is so luminescent and so precise it manually recalibrates our brains.”
The Washington Post - Carolyn See
“Nicholson Baker is such a swell, smart writer that he rarely - maybe never - tips his hand.... In Baker's view the mundane, closely enough observed, may be the skate key to the sublime.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

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 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 voil...

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 paper mills ("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."p Curiously, but perhaps not unintentionally, this book's title and cover imagery evoke David Macaulay's famous bestseller iThe Way Things Workj. 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.

Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award — all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, andThe San Francisco Chronicle.

Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416572473
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 8/7/2012
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,417,714
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 8.56 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker is the author of nine novels and four works of nonfiction, including Double Fold, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, and The New York Review of Books. He lives in Maine with his family.

Biography

An elegant writer who has taken stream of consciousness to dizzying postmodern heights, Nicholson Baker has produced a body of work that is eccentric, inventive, and extremely difficult to categorize. In his virtually plotless novels, characters ruminate on the minutest details of everyday life and lose themselves in memories of Proustian intensity. His nonfiction is equally unconventional, filled with meticulously researched minutiae and passionate polemics on topics of great personal interest -- perhaps only to himself.

Baker's quirky brilliance was evident early on in several convoluted short stories that appeared in The New Yorker and Atlantic. But he hit his own idiosyncratic stride with his 1998 debut novel. Essentially one long, loopy digression riddled with footnotes nearly as long as the narrative, The Mezzanine traces a young man's meandering thoughts during a brief escalator ride from the ground floor to the mezzanine of the office building where he works. The "action," such as it is, takes scant minutes, but it's time enough to lay bare the protagonist's entire inner life. In his review for The New York Times, Robert Plunket singled out for commendation "...the razor-sharp insight and droll humor with which Mr. Baker illuminates the unseen world."

In other novels, Baker has taken us inside the heads of many characters: a young father bottle-feeding his infant daughter (Room Temperature); a middle-aged man whose early-morning ritual begins with lighting a fire (A Box of Matches); a man who stops time in order to fondle and exploit unsuspecting women (Fermata); two people a continent apart who indulge in graphic sexual fantasies over the telephone (Vox). (Fermata and Vox were widely criticized as "literary pornography." Vox created additional buzz, when it was revealed that Monica Lewinsky had given a copy to President Bill Clinton.)

Although Baker can never be accused of dispassion, the peculiarity of his nonfiction has led to mixed reviews. In lengthy essays and articles and wildly discursive books, he has paid extravagant tribute to his literary hero John Updike (U and I: A True Story), decried the destruction of library card catalogs (an essay in The Size of Thoughts), led a crusade to preserve and archive entire collections of American newspapers (Double Fold), and challenged the traditional view of World War II as "inevitable" (Human Smoke).

Baker's brand of erudite obsession may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is easy for literate readers to fall in love with his glittering prose. He is, above all else, a lover of language; and in his deft and capable hands, even the most mundane objects and events spring to glorious, full-bodied life. Summing up the singular, seductive charms of Baker's writing, Salon critic Laura Miller may have said it best: "...dazzling descriptive powers married to a passionate enthusiasm for the neglected flotsam and jetsam of everyday life."

Good To Know

A two-week writing seminar with Donald Barthelme at the University of California jump-started Baker's writing career.

His great-grandfather Ray Stannard Baker served as press secretary to president Woodrow Wilson and won a Pulitzer prize for his biography of Wilson.

Baker's first area of interest was music, rather than literature. A talented bassoonist, he attended Eastman School of Music with an eye to becoming a classical composer. Midway through his first year, he changed his major to English. He transferred to Haverfod College in Philadelphia, graduating in 1980.

One of Baker's most passionate concerns is preserving complete runs of newspapers as a valuable record of American history. To that end, he founded the American Newspaper Repository in 1999, when he learned the British Library was selling off or trashing its bound volumes of post-1870 newspapers.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      1954
    2. Place of Birth:
      Rochester, NY
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, Haverford College, 1980

Read an Excerpt

Way the World Works


  • Back in 1982, when I was just getting going as a writer, William Whitworth, the editor of The Atlantic, called to say that he was putting together a 125th-anniversary edition and he wondered if I had anything short to contribute to the front of the magazine. Flattered, I wrote something that tootled around in a ruminative way called “Changes of Mind.” Other pieces followed, and I allowed myself to believe that I was helping to bring back the personal essay, which had fallen out of fashion. Some of my heroes were G. K. Chesterton, Christopher Morley, Alice Meynell, William Hazlitt, William James, and Samuel Johnson. By 1996 I had enough for a collection, The Size of Thoughts. Now it’s 2012 and time, it seems, for a second and slightly heftier accrual. The first section of the book, LIFE, is made up of autobiographical bits arranged more or less chronologically; then come some meditations on READING and being read to. After that I tell the story of how I sued a public LIBRARY and talk about the beauties and wonders of old NEWSPAPERS; and then comes some TECHNO-journalism and writings on WAR and the people who oppose it, followed by a LAST ESSAY that I wrote for The American Scholar on mowing the lawn. I like mowing the lawn, and it didn’t seem quite right to end the book with an impressionistic article on my unsuccessful efforts to master a series of violent video games. You’ll find things in here about kite string, e-readers, earplugs, telephones, coins in fountains, paper mills, Wikipedia, commonplace books, airplane wings, gondolas, the OED, Call of Duty, Dorothy Day, John Updike, David Remnick, and Daniel Ellsberg. In a number of places I’ve changed a title, or restored a sentence or a passage that was cut to make something fit. I hope you run into a few items that interest you.

My thanks go to Jofie Ferrari-Adler at Simon & Schuster, and to all the careful, kind editors I’ve worked with on these pieces, especially Deborah Garrison, Henry Finder, Alice Quinn, and Cressida Leyshon at The New Yorker, Anne Fadiman and Sandra Costich at The American Scholar, Robert Silvers and Sasha Weiss at The New York Review of Books, Jennifer Scheussler and Laura Marmor at the New York Times, and James Marcus at Harper’s.

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Table of Contents

Foreword ix

Life

String 1

Coins 9

How I Met My Wife 13

La Mer 15

Why I Like the Telephone 19

What Happened on April 29, 1994 21

Sunday at the Dump 23

Writing Wearing Earplugs 28

One Summer 29

Reading

Thorin Son of Thráin 43

Narrow Ruled 46

Inky Burden 56

No Step 59

I Said to Myself 66

Defoe, Truthteller 75

From A to Zyxt 84

The Nod 89

David Remnick 94

Libraries and Newspapers

Truckin' for the Future 105

If Libraries Don't Do It, Who Will? 128

Reading the Paper 135

The Times in 1951 141

Take a Look at This Airship! 149

Sex and the City, Circa 1840 159

Technology

Grab Me a Gondola 169

The Charms of Wikipedia 188

Kindle 2 206

Papermakers 227

Google's Earth 236

Steve Jobs 242

War

Why I'm a Pacifist 247

We Don't Know the Language We Don't Know 275

Painkiller Deathstreak 287

Last Essay

Mowing 311

Acknowledgments 315

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