Nicholson Baker Is Paying Attention

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 3 2012 11:54 PM

Attention Must Be Paid

And Nicholson Baker is just the man to do it.

Nicholson Baker.
Nicholson Baker.

Photo by Elias Baker.

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 raunchVox, 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.”

With his passion for amateur academia (his previous essay collection, The Size of Thoughts, featured a 150-page piece tracing the genealogy of the word “lumber”), Baker was bound to fall for Wikipedia. He begins making small edits to a few articles. After a week, he finds his true calling: saving articles flagged for possible deletion. He discovers that two users have voted to remove an entry on Richard Denner, an obscure American post-Beat poet deemed not a “notable figure.” Against these “deletionists” Baker adopts an “inclusionist” philosophy, bulking the article up with quotes from newspaper interviews and voting “keep” on the page where administrators decide the fate of threatened articles. The page was axed.

Soon Baker finds himself constantly polishing up at-risk articles (a South Korean textile company, a San Diego neuroscientist, a “Cyprio-Turkish crime family based in London”), bestowing them with the protective armor of additional quotes and citations. “All of these people and things had been deemed nonnotable by other editors, sometimes with unthinking harshness,” Baker writes. “When I managed to help save something I was quietly thrilled—I walked tall, like Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men.” (He can walk even taller when he learns that the page for poor Richard Denner has since been resurrected.)

That same instinct for preservation underpins the way Baker writes. Ever since his first essays and stories appeared in the early ‘80s, he has always been noting things deemed non-notable by others, gently urging them towards us with his precise, delightful language.  His style is deeply moral—not in a preachy sense, but in the sense that it emerges from the way he sees the world. His ethics are absorbed into his aesthetics, and vice versa.

In all this there is the flavor of one of Baker’s favorite authors, Iris Murdoch, who centered her moral philosophy on the idea of “loving attention”—the idea that looking at a person or situation with intense care and imaginative sympathy is, in her words, “the characteristic and proper mark of the moral agent.” The lovingly precise descriptions Baker offers of even the most fleeting things that he comes across are a way of doing justice to those things—of honoring their dignity, if that’s not too grand and religious-sounding a phrase to use. (Baker is an atheist, and also a pacifist.)

But the scope of Baker’s attention is far wider than Murdoch’s—extending beyond living things to sights, sounds, books, newspapers, Web pages, even idle thoughts. “I want each sequential change of mind in its true, knotted, clotted, viny multifariousness, with all of the colorful streamers of intelligence still taped on,” he wrote in an early essay, “Changes of Mind.”

No other writer is so handy with a simile. The tails of groundhogs look “like the handles of Revere saucepans.” Words printed on a piece of white paper are composed of “sharp black letters laid out like lacquered chopsticks on a clean tablecloth.” A book’s page “rises up slightly toward the inside margin and then veers south into the binding, like a mounding wave.” Like a wave is nothing special. Like a mounding wave is the thing exactly.

But all this attention can also be a bit wearying for the reader, especially if you’re reading the book cover to cover. Descriptions become ends in themselves, as Baker splashes around happily in the English language, looking for new and amusing ways to bring his subjects to life. This is all fine and good in a short essay about spending a Sunday at the dump, but patience-sapping in a many-thousand word piece on gondolas which gazes so lovingly at these boats that it never looks beyond them. Where many great essays approach their real subject sideways (Montaigne’s essay On Cannibals, say, is sort of about cannibals, but really it’s about cultural relativism), Baker often ends up writing about exactly the thing he’s writing about. In his essay on violent videogames, we learn that Uncharted 2 is better than God of War III and that Assassin’s Creed II is worth checking out if you’re into virtual neck-stabbing, but in the end we don’t discover much more than that. The larger ideas that a pacifist entering the world of violent videogames might want to explore are noted and then briskly set aside.

But a book like this isn't meant to be read from Page 1 to Page 314, and when your own attention starts to lag, you can always just skip on to a different essay. Or even put the book down for a little while. Check your email maybe, or cook some food, or take a walk. Notice a few things. Look.

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The Way the World Works: Essays by Nicholson Baker. Simon & Schuster.

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