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Book Review: The Way the World Works: Essays by Nicholson Baker

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Nicholson Baker’s literary career began with the auspicious fiction debut The Mezzanine (1988), a stream-of-consciousness novella that takes place entirely in the narrator’s mind as he rides an escalator. And what a fertile mind, musing on the history of the milk carton and the straw in prose that conveyed obsession not as tedium but the insatiable curiosity of the brain. This curiosity is evident throughout Baker’s fiction, including last year’s surreal erotic novel House of Holes. But it also runs through his nonfiction.

The title of Baker’s latest collection of essays, The Way the World Works,  sums up what the writer does, and what Baker does in his obsessive, curious, always readable fashion. The book compiles essays that go back to the 1990s, and is divided into six sections. “Life” is obviously autobiographical, and its chronology dryly follows an intermittent and episodic path through the author’s experience. “Reading” collects prose about books as well as book introductions, including a preface to Abelardo Morrell’s photo book,  A Book of Books. But Baker’s passions really kick in during the section, “Libraries and Newspapers.”

Baker’s non-fiction book Double Fold, now a decade old, looked into what he and many others saw as a destructive practice of libraries looking to the future by destroying the past, in the form of card catalogs and bound newspaper volumes. This section updates this work and follows Baker’s experience trying to save a library system’s card catalog as well as preventing it from discarding valuable books that future-minded new administrators deemed useless.

A section on “Technology” continues Baker’s admiration for a gentler time, as a travelogue of Venice develops from admiration of gondolas to a lament at the speedboats that threaten to overwhelm the city’s fabled canals. Baker has mixed feelings about the Kindle, and it may be ironic that this book is available as an eBook, but in whatever format it’s read, Baker’s observant eye lives up to its title with his dryly inquisitive humor.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.