The Way the World Works: Essays by Nicholson Baker

Old Books

Some of my favorite reads fail to make it up here.  It happened with Graham Robb’s The Discovery of Middle Earth.  It happened with Eliot Weinberger and with Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches, not to mention all the junk I’m ashamed to put on here. I shouldn’t go without saying something about Baker’s The Way the World Works.  Almost every essay in this book has something good in it, if only a well timed moment of bombast, a silly joke, or a great metaphor.  “Black it was and full of power,” he writes of a penny in a fountain in an otherwise straightforward piece about a summer job.  Wikipedia’s automatic filters, or “bots”, revert a piece of profane but spirited vandalism “with a little sigh”.

Two essays in particular captivated me.  The first was “Truckin’ for the Future”, which title was the slogan of an ambitious San Francisco librarian Baker clashed with in the nineties.  Having written about card catalogues in the New Yorker, he was contacted by disgruntled librarians and became embroiled in questions of deaccession and open records.  The essay is a thrilling hit piece on an administration that, not content with remaking a major city library as a trendy “information utility”, used the chaos of an earthquake and a badly planned move to hack apart a valuable collection and decades of work.

Baker’s essays on newspapers are in a similar vein.  He argues for keeping the old physical copies alongside the microfilm and digital versions.  But these essays are less polemical and more focused on the lovely, leatherbound elephant folios of the bound newspaper runs of yore.  Is Baker a crank?  Is there another side to this story?  Library bureaucracy resorted to counterclaims plausible (it’s always going to be necessary to throw books away) and implausible (he’s Rasputin), and plain stonewalling.  I think Nicholson Baker has established that he deserves the libraries that would make him happy.

The second essay is “Why I am a Pacifist”.  This was written after the book Human Smoke, in which Baker let sources speak for themselves but concluded that the pacifists who spoke out during World War II were right.  While this essay is in some ways a response to the many people who objected to Human Smoke, I would love to see a real, sustained exchange on the subject between Baker and some of the people, especially those on the left, who hold so tightly to the notion of the good war.  Baker is deeply mistrustful of it.  His insistence that a falsely sanitized image of air power has held sway from WWII to the present is compelling.  So too is the insistent focus on the refugee issue.  Could more have been done to save Jews, things that didn’t involve firebombing?  Recent events suggest that Americans, among other nations, would try almost anything before accepting a flood of refugees.

This past week I enjoyed a third Cesar Aira novella, The Literary Conference.  I’m planning to reread Meno and read some of the dialogues I haven’t gotten to yet.  I’m also trying to make myself learn some chess openings.  I have a cool old copy of Capablanca’s Primer of Chess; maybe that will be more fun than looking them up online.

Image by Skyden67, via Wikimedia Commons, CC share alike.

What do I think of the London Review? I’m glad you asked…

I ought to take more surveys, because they force me to concentrate and have a way of turning postable.  It’s fun to try to figure out how many hardcovers I’ve bought recently and whether I buy gin often enough to qualify for “not that often but sometimes”, and it’s weird to see into the minds of the marketing people who care about it.  Here’s a paragraph I turned in describing what I think of the London Review of Books:

I think it’s great.  I value very highly the LRB’s attention to serious issues and works of philosophy, history, and politics.  Where else would I read about prosopography?  My main point of comparison for the LRB is the New York Review, and in this respect I think the LRB is superior.  If I am not mistaken, this is because the LRB selects more scholarly books for review and occasionally allows reviewers greater space.  I also appreciate the occasional departure from usual form represented by authors such as Eliot Weinberger or a diary on fan fiction.  Thanks!

To be fair, I should say that the NYR strikes me as wider ranging and superior in its coverage of American politics and culture.  It also has more pictures!

If I had to choose one, I’d probably go with the LRB.  In addition to what I said above, I like the LRB’s archive and the electronic version a lot.  I also have access to both magazines at my institution, so it’s not really such a terrible prospect.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you can look forward to a post on Nicholson Baker’s essays sometime, and maybe even a series on my preposterously uninformed reading of Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality.