Essays chart losses, gains of new digital era
THE WAY THE WORLD WORKS. By Nicholson Baker. Simon & Schuster. 304 pages. $25.
Nicholson Baker looks at the world around us in a way that is not only artful and entertaining but instructive.
In his latest nonfiction collection, “The Way the World Works,” Baker offers more than glimpses of his childhood in Rochester, N.Y., as he did in “String” and “Coins,” and in-sight into his uniquely deliberative habits as writer and reader (“Narrow Ruled”).
Over the course of 34 essays, originally published between 1993 and 2011 (with an emphasis on recent work), he reminds us what we stand to lose as we discard pre-digital technologies like the traditional news- paper (“The Times in 1951,” “Take A Look at this Airship!”) and simultaneously marvels at the newer technologies displacing them (“The Charms of Wikipedia,” “Google’s Earth,” “Kindle 2”).
He also explores his own pacifism in a three-essay set titled simply “War.”
Baker is at his most provocative, however, when he’s defending his passions, namely newspapers, books and libraries.
Perhaps the strongest piece in the collection is “Truckin’ for the Future,” a jaw-dropping indictment of slash-and-burn “weeding” practices denuding our public library collections.
Originally published in The New Yorker more than 15 years ago, the essay is as relevant in the Digital Now as it was in 1996, maybe more so.
The collection may feature a few too many repurposed book introductions and public speeches for its own good. “If Libraries Don’t Do It, Who Will?” for example, was likely compelling when delivered at a Duke University library ribbon-cutting ceremony but feels a touch fluffy here.
Other essays, such as Baker’s thought piece on modern video games, “Painkiller Deathstreak,” may suffer for their ephemerality, though considering Baker’s overarching program that’s less so a problem, more so the point.
These are snapshots of our time, after all. Should they escape the shredder or the overzealous library director we should revisit them decades hence.
Reviewer Craig Brandhorst, a writer based in Columbia