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.

Human Smoke: A Strong Case for Pacifism

I’m forever getting reacquainted with the big, unreadable books on my shelves; last night it was The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.  I was trying once again to figure out structuralism and post-structuralism.  Somehow I found myself back at Pyrrhonian skepticism and from there, Diogenes Laertius.  One sentence in the short notice drew my attention: “He had a taste for anecdote and paradox, but no talent for philosophical exposition.”  The same has been said of Nicholson Baker, and in much the same narrow minded spirit.

I finally read Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.  For a long time I was put off by the way  it’s put together: Human Smoke is strung together out of snippets from newspapers, diaries and a variety of other contemporary reports.  There’s little commentary and few signs of a thesis.  I ended up being won over, however.  Before I say more, let me admit that Baker’s interview on Amazon explains much better than I could what he was about.  A friend also wrote a note on her blog that I think is pretty much right on.

We generally appreciate that the bombing campaigns of World War II were pretty horrific. What is less appreciated is that the campaigns’ military effectiveness is still debated.  Alongside of evidence of bombing’s colossal waste and the futile, sick fantasy that punishing civilians would lead to compromise, Baker steadily focuses on the many thwarted efforts to actually help the people, the Jews and other refugees, that we sometimes think this good war was fought for.  By ending his book with the attack on Pearl Harbor, Baker ensures that phases like the phony war, that might be skipped over to get to the “good stuff”, are given due weight.  It’s remarkable that nothing about the war feels inevitable in this treatment.  I’m not quite to the point of agreeing with Baker that the pacifists were right, as he says in the end, but I’m thinking about it.

On Monday I bought Baker’s recent collection of essays, The Way the World Works.    The title seems like a bit much, but I was won over by a piece on video games.  I’m glad he shares my high opinion of the adventure/shooter Uncharted 2.  There’s also an essay called “Why I am a Pacifist” I’m very curious about.