The Way the World Works

The Way the World Works

by Nicholson Baker
     
 

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Nicholson Baker, who “writes like no one else in America” (Newsweek), here assembles his best short pieces from the last fifteen years.

The Way the World Works, Baker’s second nonfiction collection, ranges over the map of life to examine what troubles us, what eases our pain, and what brings us joy. Baker moves from political

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Overview

Nicholson Baker, who “writes like no one else in America” (Newsweek), here assembles his best short pieces from the last fifteen years.

The Way the World Works, Baker’s second nonfiction collection, ranges over the map of life to examine what troubles us, what eases our pain, and what brings us joy. Baker 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. He writes about kite string and about the moment he met his wife, and he surveys our fascination with video games while attempting to beat his teenage son at Modern Warfare 2. In a celebrated essay on Wikipedia, Baker describes his efforts to stem the tide of encyclopedic deletionism; in another, he charts the rise of e-readers; in a third he chronicles his Freedom of Information lawsuit against the San Francisco Public Library.

Through all these pieces, many written for The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The American Scholar, 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 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.”
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
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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”

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.”
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
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 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.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781416572473
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
08/07/2012
Pages:
336
Product dimensions:
5.82(w) x 8.56(h) x 1.04(d)

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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