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The Way The World Works Hardcover – Aug 7 2012
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“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 The New York Times Magazine)
“His prose is so luminescent and so precise it manually recalibrates our brains.” (Lev Grossman Time)
“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 The Washington Post)
“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 Los Angeles Times Book Review)
“[A] winning new book. . . . This singular writer . . . can mount an argument skillfully and deliver an efficient conclusive kick.” (The San Francisco Chronicle)
“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.” (Financial Times (London))
“Baker looks at the world around us in a way that is not only artful and entertaining but instructive.” (Charleston Post & Courier)
“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 The Wall Street Journal)
“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.” (Seattle Times)
“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 Boston Globe)
“If only more of the literary world worked the way Baker does. . . . You cannot deny the courage of the writer. . . . Baker is singular.” (The Buffalo News)
About the Author
Nicholson Baker is the author of nine novels and four works of nonfiction, including Double Fold, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives in Maine with his family.See all Product Description
Inside This Book(Learn More)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
As always, Baker turns his eye to things that most of us either do not see or do not know we are seeing. He is intrigued by the writing on the wings of airplanes that can be viewed from his seat ("Press here on latch to ensure locking.") He has noticed that quote marks are no longer used to delineate a characters thoughts in works of fiction and wonders if this is a bad thing. He can talk at length about earplugs or telephones or string.
In a collection of summer memories, Baker juxtaposes the important with the seemingly forgettable. In this essay, he challenges the reader to consider why some events, smells, persons, etc become stuck in memory while others fall out as lost pieces of the past. What is the mechanism that catches shards of time while letting other moments, perhaps with more resonance, drift away forever?
In the end, the most important feature of Baker's essays is not the content but the style of his writing. Lev Grossman of Time summarizes perfectly: "his prose is so luminescent and precise, it manually recalibrates our brains." Because of this, these entries should be selected in a leisurely manner and read slowly. They allow entry into a literate and fascinating mind, much as the reading experience is described by Baker in the essay "Inky Burden." Once the reader has done this, he may not necessarily see the world more fully but he should at least be increasingly aware that there is more to see within the limits of perception and that there is much that is being missed.
Nicholson Baker is a hero to some librarians, such as myself, for his challenging of Ken Dowlin, who wantonly destroyed San Francisco Public Library's research collection, and his rescue, with his wife, of what is apparently the last set of Pulitzer's World newspapers. Having lost the fight for the International Trade Commission's research collection, I feel the same pain intensely. I was gripped by these essays. I recently read an article in the Washington Post maintaining that even young people who grown up in the digital age and make great use of the computer often prefer to read books in hardcopy, so they may be around longer than some futurists think.
I also greatly enjoyed his essay "Coins," I loved the description of how the coins piled up upon one another; as well as his essay on Daniel Defoe, Flash Papers, and a few others. Others I found too dull, too idiosyncratic, or too fragmentary to enjoy. One thing that I dislike about Baker's writing is his tendency to include way too much detail, which interrupts the flow of some of even his best essays.
Here begins the diatribe, mine in response to his: "Why I am a Pacifist." Quite a few things are mixed in here, so let me cut the subject down. Unlike Kathe Pollitt, whose excellent review of Baker's The Human Smoke (Nation, April 3, 2008) could also apply to this essay, I have not come to despise pacifists. I don't approve of unnecessary violence, like terror bombings including wartime bombing of targets with no military value; I don't approve of the ill-conceived military adventures that have occupied so much of our recent history, like Dubya's invasion of Iraq.
This was the first essay in the book that I read, and I almost put it down, nay, hurled it across the room, I was so angry. I forced myself to read it twice more so that I could consider it more calmly. Part of the issue is that people defend proposed military actions by harkening back to World War II, so instead of arguing that such reasonings may be faulty, Baker wants to discredit "the good war." I will not accept the argument that he is "providing balance" by presenting a biased and dishonest analysis, nor am I interested in the unnecessary task of pointing out that WWII was not a simple contest between Good and Evil (see the Pollitt quote, below.) We can't know what would have happened, but I think Baker has poor grounds for his assumptions. Baker deals only with the US and GB and not with the Union of Socialist Republics (USSR) or the Eastern front, as well, as the Pacific war with Japan, which makes his analyses incomplete. An end to fighting with GB and the US might simply have given Hitler more resources to attack the USSR, while keeping open the option of renewing hostilities with GB and the US later.
There are two main issues that remain: first, was the idea of a lasting negotiated peace with Germany feasible? I don't think so. Baker completely ignores Hitler's history of breaking international agreements, most famously the Munich Agreement in which he agreed to make no further territorial demands; and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which he broke as soon as it was convenient to invade the USSR. Prior to Kaufman's speech which Baker so admires, Germany had overrun much of Europe, including a number of neutral nations. I suspect that any cessation of hostilities would have merely allowed Germany to consolidate its empire before continuing its warfare. The stakes were very high, either way: continuing the war insured casualties and costs, but a resumption of war after a broken pact might mean refighting battles that had already caused a loss of life and resources, resulting in an even greater loss. Baker also argues that we could have stopped the war and simply waited for Hitler to die, with no concern about what he might have done in his remaining years. Apparently he doesn't believe that any other Nazi leader would have arisen in his place. No-one can know for sure what never happened, but Baker doesn't convince me that the pacifistic hopes were realistic.
Pollitt comments in her review that: "If you are naive enough to believe that the United States went to war to save the Jews, Human Smoke will disabuse you. But the reader who is surprised to learn that neither Roosevelt or Churchill did a thing to prevent the Holocaust is unlikely to know enough to question Baker's slanted version of other events."
Speaking of negotiations, we come to the second issue: did Great Britain and the United States provoke the Final Solution, and could they have saved the victims by a timely armistice? Baker concedes that Hitler was planning the Final Solution long before the US entered the war, but also claims that Hitler was using the Jews [and others] as hostages to prevent the US from entering the war, and when they did so, the minorities lost their value as hostages and he killed them. Imagine that you are the manager in charge of a bank, or a gas station or a convenience store. An armed robber comes in, steals money, and drags off someone as a hostage, yelling that if you call the police, he or she will be killed. You call the police as soon as they are out of the door. Now imagine that the thief is caught, and the hostage is dead. I can imagine Baker, strong in his sense of moral righteousness, taking the stand for the defense, and arguing that the wrong person is charged with murder. After all, the shooter warned you not to call the police, so obviously you are the murderer since you disobeyed.
When I try to figure out who knew what, when, with regard to the Holocaust, it seems to be a snarl. Nonetheless, that the minorities were in a very difficult situation was clear in the 1930s, and I agree with Baker that the US was morally derelict in not admitting more of them. One entire shipload of Jews managed to leave Europe, but had to return when no-one in the Americas would admit them.
Baker argues that the US and GB could have negotiated at least a cease-fire that would have allowed them to take the minorities to safety. He seems to feel that their failure to do this is more morally culpable than Hitler's decision to oppress and kill them in the first place. Baker's reading of the situation makes it sound so simple! If Hitler was open to such a plan, I am surprised that he didn't suggest it. I have read that there were some 12 million Jews in Europe before the war. So let us suppose that Hitler gave the US and GB one year to take some 10-12 million refugees, Jews and other minorities, probably with only the clothes on their backs, and integrate them into societies ravaged by the Great Depression and, in GB's case, the Battle of Britain. What a bonanza it would have been for him! Time to digest his empire, concentrate on defeating the USSR, and/or repair his forces, and his opponents struggling with such an enormous social burden. Hitler could also restart the fight with GB and the US at his leisure.
It would of course, have also deprived Hitler of the hostages that he claimed he needed against the aggression of GB and the US, as well as adding to those societies more of those clever, controlling Jews who would no doubt have pushed for war against Germany. I have read people who blame American Jews for getting us into WWII. This is assuming that he would have been satisfied having the minorities elsewhere rather than having them dead. Baker also ignores the harsh fact that the idea would probably have been enormously unpopular in the US and GB. Even in countries that routinely accept immigrants, people don't generally like huge influxes of foreigners, especially all from one place or if they are somewhat exotic; and they like them even less during times of economic crisis; and when they were Jews, Gypsies (Rom), homosexuals, and communists, they were likely to be even more unpopular. Not a flattering assessment of the allies, but Baker has already demonized them. The moral imperative of trying to save the minorities doesn't negate the practical difficulties that Baker ignores.
Baker also argues, with no evidence, that peace would have caused the German people to rise up in revolt against Hitler. Actually, such a diplomatic triumph might have reinforced his popularity That also leaves the tiny issue of abandoning the other European nations and their suffering people.
I actually read his article on Kindle 2 a couple of years ago in the New Yorker and still found it interesting to re-read even if his arguments are moot as a lot of the problems he identifies - screen transitions and resolution, placement of buttons - have been fixed in newer versions of the device. But after Baker's effusive recommendation of Michael Connelly's novel "The Lincoln Lawyer", I ended up reading it, loving it, and reading and loving more of Connelly's books - and to you reading this, I as effusively recommend "The Lincoln Lawyer".
Baker writes fascinating and funny articles on Wikipedia, Google, Daniel DeFoe and his book "A Journal of the Plague Year", and David Remnick. He's also able to take mundane objects like string and turn them into hypnotic essays, while I thought the structure of his essay of events that happened one summer to be an inspired and riveting approach to memory and recollection, as well as some vivid and poetic observations.
Not that the whole book was brilliant, I did have some problems with a few essays. The book is divided up into categories like "Life", "Reading", "Technology", "War" and so on. His numerous articles on libraries and archiving went on a bit too long. The first few were interesting to read but by the end of the section "Libraries and Newspapers" I didn't want to read any more essays critiquing libraries sending thousands of stack books to the dump. I get it, you like old stuff, move on!
I abandoned his essay on gondolas as it was too boring - Baker has a habit, oftentimes good, of over-describing things and while I usually enjoy this approach, the extensive descriptions of gondolas and their history overwhelmed me with boredom. The same could be said of his description of a protest march in DC against the wars in the Middle East, while his essay on computer games was strangely humourless and uninteresting. It read like exactly what it was: an old man doing something he hadn't done before because he knew he wouldn't enjoy it and proving that he was right while misunderstanding why people younger than him enjoy them. Disappointing.
While it's not a perfect collection, when I read an essay I liked, it was always brilliant and enlightening and I can away feeling wiser and happier, and that's a rare gift for any writer to possess. Also having read a number of Baker's novels it's interesting to see the passing interests he mentions being the root of certain books. Like he mentions studying how to write erotic novels in 2006 and, sure enough, in 2011 he published an erotic novel called "House of Holes" while his essays on libraries led to his book "Double Fold" and his discovery of newspaper articles from the 1930s would lead to his controversial revisionist history book "Human Smoke". Altogether "The Way The World Works" is an oftentimes brilliant collection of essays from a superb writer which is well worth a look even if you end up skipping a few articles along the way.
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