X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.spectator.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

Books

The Way the World Works by Nicholson Baker – an ideal Christmas present

28 November 2012

9:51 AM

28 November 2012

9:51 AM

Nicholson Baker is intensely interested. He looks at the world like he has never seen it before, fixating on the mundane and capitalizing upon the strange lacunae which exist between seeing and understanding. In the purist sense, his interest makes him interesting.

The Way the World Works is a colourful digest of his essays, conference papers, feature articles, and observations, divided into five main sections: Life (his own, principally), Reading, Libraries and Newspapers, Technology, and War. Well over a decade’s worth of eloquent umming and ahhing is encased in a single volume, a follow-up to his first, The Size of Thoughts. It is only in the book’s ‘Final Essay’, from 2004, that he sizes up the near obsession that has led him to grapple with these topics for so long:

‘Only some of the unknown things…are things that you are aware of not knowing, and then within that subset is a smaller set still – the unknowns that pull at you. Curiosity is a way of ordering and indeed paring down the wildness of the world. Of all the unmown fields, all the subjects I don’t know anything about, this one right here is the one I want to pursue.’

[Alt-Text]


Among the known disiecta (a scattering of disparate things) to which he has dedicated himself are bovine hormones, Sleepless in Seattle, hydraulic fluid (the fruit of all of which he poured into Wikipedia), and the hydrodynamics and social status of the gondola, which carried him to his wedding in Venice. If the quest sounds hackneyed, the way it is framed is not.

At one point in the book he muses on the decision to use quotation marks to convey internal thoughts in literature. He looks at Tolstoy’s demarcations of thought through punctuation relative to James Joyce’s almost indiscernible separations between narrative and interior speech, and the trend exhibited by Tom Clancy and Margaret Drabble for italicizing these unspoken elements. By the end he has contorted his mind into even greater indecision than it possessed on the matter to begin with. In a very natural way, he demonstrates that a solution is rarely more than one chink of a larger scenario; a researcher’s job is never done. It is apparently for this reason that he resents the journalist’s task to linger only fleetingly over any subject; five years, he suggests mock-stoically, is the appropriate period to dedicate to a topic.

Baker, though, also works as a journalist. In the middle chapters of this book he angles this profession towards underlining why some kinds of publication survive, and others do not. He uncovers niche newspapers from mid nineteenth-century New York, explains why he took it upon himself to salvage and archive publications earmarked by libraries for the wastepaper bin, and provides a particularly nuanced comment on the progression from print in the ‘antegoogluvian era’, to the digitalization of news and books. As a paper mill is forced to close, he engages a representative from the Institute for Sustainable Communication in a discussion about the power required to fuel the world’s growing internet usage; ‘we really do have to be asking, Where will the electricity come from?’, the representative says. Baker leaves open-ended the possibility that all online materials, too, need their own form of offline archiving.

The heart of the book is undoubtedly here, in the middle chapters. An ingeniously ordered series of writings on Daniel Defoe, David Remnick editor of the New Yorker (‘one of the three great contributions the United States has made to world civilization. The other two are, of course, Some Like It Hot and the iPhone’), archiving, Kindle, and Steve Jobs cuts at the thrust of Baker’s fascination with variety, with knowledge, and with the changing fashions which condition knowledge. He becomes resigned to the fact that ‘almost’ to know is a fine enough achievement. Here more than anywhere he shows that, within the confines of his chosen patches of turf, he has, almost, accomplished what in 2004 he deemed unattainable, a book on The Way the World Works.

Give something clever this Christmas – a year’s subscription to The Spectator for just £75. And we’ll give you a free bottle of champagne. Click here.


Show comments
Close