Devil in the detail

The Way the World Works: Essays, by Nicholson Baker, Simon & Schuster, RRP $25/£14.99, 336 pages

There is a lulling quality to Nicholson Baker’s writing, a tweedy sincerity and good humour that makes it easy to forget what a fundamentally radical author he is.

In 2004, when patriotism in America was soaring, he released Checkpoint, a hilariously furious dialogue between two friends, one of whom is planning to assassinate President George W. Bush. It unleashed a firestorm of complaint. Last year he released House of Holes, a comic sex fantasia full of disembodied genitalia and orgasmachinery that was remarkable for being both comical and sexy. He has also written a 150-page etymological study of the word “lumber”. Suffice it to say, you can never be sure quite where Baker is going to take you.

What you do know is how he’s going to take you there: through a microscopic detailing of the everyday. This collection of witty and wise non-fiction pieces from the past 15 years sees Baker expound on such abstruse subjects as earplugs (“when you unstick your thumb from a jammed-in plug your eardrum will make a tiny, silent cry of pain, like a word in Arabic”) and the dials of old rotary phones (“sometimes I hurried it back around and felt the centre gear strain slightly”). Simply sitting down in a chair is for Baker what casting off from shore was for Melville, or floating down the Mississippi was for Mark Twain. This is a world of tiny sensation enlarged into giant stepping stones of experience.

Baker’s gentle hyper-competence is both similar, and yet the opposite, to that of another encyclopedic essayist, the late David Foster Wallace. While Wallace formulated his essays into sweating self-conscious missives filed from a forever-alien terrain, Baker produces reveries and daydreams that are totally under the control of their author. Looked at from afar, Baker is an essayist in the tradition of GK Chesterton and Max Beerbohm, writing winning fantasias upon whatever chance thoughts may come into his head. Yet Baker’s intensity of detail can seem almost hallucinogenic at times. For example, in “String” the seams in a concrete sidewalk remind him of the seam in a stick of bubblegum that he ate when he was young and which, when he pulled the gum out of his mouth, left fine filaments that reminded him of the thread in his mother’s sewing machine, whose needle reminded him of the injection he received at a doctor’s office, which in turn harked back to the stings he suffered from a horde of angry wasps, and so on down the whirlpool of memory.

Baker can induce vertigo in his descriptions of the fathomless depths that our most mundane surrounds hold within them. In the last essay, “Mowing”, he claims that his obsessive curiosity is “a way of ordering and indeed paring down the wildness of the world”. But if anything, this curiosity takes us to places that are much wilder and more disorientating.

Balancing out Baker’s kaleidoscopic miniaturism is a gargantuan obsession – book preservation – and a considerable proportion of The Way the World Works is devoted to the subject. Compared with his carefully unruffled descriptions elsewhere, here Baker becomes so fired up that he almost loses his cool, although never his focus. He rails against research collections being deaccessioned and scoffs at the digital reformatting of old books. “We understand why fragile old flags and old presidential letters are valuable as things ... the particular fragility of an old volume is part of what it has to tell us.”

To Baker, as to Borges before him, libraries hold within them the promise of eternity. Old books and old newspapers are, for him, the repositories of endless undiscovered minutiae just waiting to be found. “Pages, for the most part, live out their long lives in the dark,” he writes, “keeping hidden what inky burdens they bear, pressed tightly against their neighbours, communicating nothing, until suddenly, like the lightbulb in the refrigerator that seems to be always on but almost never is, one of them is called upon to speak. And it does.”

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