For a novelist, Nicholson Baker writes a lot like an essayist. Plots and characters are banished to the outer reaches of Baker’s fiction, which, in the mold of essayists from Montaigne onward, lovingly inspects small things and from them tweezes out unexpectedly large ideas. This allows ample room for the novels’ Baker-like narrators to chase after their own thoughts—on how to trim a beard, on the decline of rhyming poetry, on the possible connection between bad dreams and the need to pee. (His books of raunch—Vox, The Fermata and House of Holes—take a slightly different, if still recognizably Bakerian, approach.)
Take his first novel, The Mezzanine. The plot is this: A man goes on his lunch break, thinks about things. That’s it. Almost every chapter could be sliced out and consumed as a discrete essay. Had the book been published as a collection of essays, rather than a novel, its table of contents might have looked like this:
1. On Bags
2. On Footwear
3. On Brains
4. On Office Etiquette
5. On Escalators
6. On Milk Cartons
and so on.
As it happens, Baker has just published a collection of essays—his first since 1996—called The Way the World Works. It’s separated into five sections, as prosaically titled as the essays in that imaginary version of The Mezzanine: Life, Reading, Libraries and Newspapers, Technology, War. Together the essays, hits and misses alike, offer a portrait of the author as a unique kind of intellectual engagé—an essentially apolitical guy working to save the things he loves. Sam Anderson had it just right when, in a Paris Review interview last year, he noted the “instinct for preservation” that runs through Baker’s work. That impulse, evident on every page of his latest book, is Baker’s defining trait as a writer.
Everywhere he looks, people are carelessly throwing out precious old things to make way for new, as if change automatically means improvement—as if what’s lost is always either replaceable or not worth replacing. In one essay Baker socks it to the San Francisco Public Library for their thoughtless extermination of thousands of old books. In another, he sets up an organization known as the American Newspaper Repository with his wife, rescuing 6,000 volumes of rare newspapers from destruction and then renting out an abandoned mill in New Hampshire to store them.
Baker’s preservationism isn’t tedious or reactionary. He’s a fan of words on paper and libraries and old newspapers, but he’s also a fan of the 21st century’s particular pleasures. The Technology section of The Way the World Works contains tributes to Google (shoutouts to “the amazing expando-charts in Google Finance” and Google Books, that enabler of “interesting recherché nineteenth-century discoveries”), iPads (“this brilliant, slip-sliding rectangle of private joy”) and Wikipedia (“just an incredible thing”).
In that last essay, a particular highlight of the collection, Baker romps his way through Wikipedia past and present, describing how this miraculous place—where “in a few seconds you can look up, for instance, ‘Diogenes of Sinope,’ or ‘turnip’ ”—was magicked out of nothing. In Baker’s telling, Wikipedia started out as a kind of techno-utopia where “the self-taught and the expensively educated,” “the cranks,” and “the mainstreamers” converged with an “exhilarating sense of mission” to build the most comprehensive encyclopedia in history—a gift to the world, free of banner ads, hyperactive popups and all the other money-hungry pests native to the net.
There’s a Wikipedian quality to the essay itself. Who knew, for instance, that when the site was first getting going, it incorporated articles from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, along with a number of other reference books in the public domain? These early entries have since been tweaked, defaced, improved, expanded, but, writes Baker, “amid the modern aggregate, some curvy prose from the 1911 Britannica still survives verbatim … like those stony bits of classical buildings incorporated in a medieval wall.”