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.’
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.