The Way the World Works: Essays

BOOK: The Way the World Works: Essays
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“A fundamentally radical author . . . Baker is an essayist in the tradition of GK Chesterton and Max Beerbohm, writing winning fantasies upon whatever chance thoughts may come into his head.”


Financial Times

“Baker’s new essay collection,
The Way the World Works
, is always absorbing, merging his interest in solid, tangible objects with his devotion to the life of the mind. . . . Simply dazzling.”


Seattle Times

“Baker splashes around happily in the English language, looking for new and amusing ways to bring his subjects to life. . . . His writing is deeply
moral
—not in a preachy sense, but in the sense that it emerges from the way he sees the world.”


Slate

“Baker’s essays suspend you every few sentences or so, as you savor the silence he creates and enjoy the weightlessness you feel leaping from one thought to another.”


The Daily Beast

“Baker looks at the world around us in a way that is not only artful and entertaining but instructive.”


Charleston Post & Courier

“Baker, naïvely eager yet wise, employs his precise and evocative words to cherish and dissect, illuminate and interpret, gild and strip down things common and uncommon in such a manner that we appreciate what a splendid creation we inhabit.”


The Barnes & Noble Review

“[Baker] writes with charm and humor but also with a literate, clear-headed insightfulness. . . . Highly recommended.”


The Portland Book Review

“No matter how often one reads Baker, the style remains a surprise. . . . He is one of the most important writers we have.”


The Telegraph
(UK)

“Full of the kind of cognitive sharp left turns that betray a true gift for metaphor. . . . For all his descriptive flourishes, Baker still has a way of getting to the precise heart of a matter.”


The Independent
(UK)

“Baker offers gorgeous prose and poses important questions. . . . A delight to read.”


Publishers Weekly
(starred review)

“A thoughtful collection . . . Baker is a champion of beauty on the verge of vanishing.”


Kirkus Reviews

Praise for Nicholson Baker

“Baker is one of the most beautiful, original and ingenious prose stylists to have come along in decades.”

—Charles McGrath,
The New York Times Magazine

“His prose is so luminescent and so precise it manually recalibrates our brains.”

—Lev Grossman,
Time

“Nicholson Baker is such a swell, smart writer that he rarely—maybe never—tips his hand. . . . In Baker’s view the mundane, closely enough observed, may be the skate key to the sublime.”

—Carolyn See,
The Washington Post

“Baker writes with appealing charm. He clowns and shows off, rambles and pounces hard; he says acute things, extravagant things, terribly funny things.”


The Boston Globe

“If only more of the literary world worked the way Baker does. . . . You cannot deny the courage of the writer. . . . Baker is singular.”


The Buffalo News

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CONTENTS

Foreword

Life

String

Coins

How I Met My Wife

La Mer

Why I Like the Telephone

What Happened on April 29, 1994

Sunday at the Dump

Writing Wearing Earplugs

One Summer

Reading

Thorin Son of Thráin

Narrow Ruled

Inky Burden

No Step

I Said to Myself

Defoe, Truthteller

From A to Zyxt

The Nod

David Remnick

Libraries and Newspapers

Truckin’ for the Future

If Libraries Don’t Do It, Who Will?

Reading the Paper

The
Times
in 1951

Take a Look at This Airship!

Sex and the City, Circa 1840

Technology

Grab Me a Gondola

The Charms of Wikipedia

Kindle 2

Papermakers

Google’s Earth

Steve Jobs

War

Why I’m a Pacifist

We Don’t Know the Language We Don’t Know

Painkiller Deathstreak

Last Essay

Mowing

Acknowledgments

About the Author

FOREWORD

B
ack in 1982, when I was just getting going as a writer, William Whitworth, the editor of
The Atlantic,
called to say that he was putting together a 125th-anniversary edition and he wondered if I had anything short to contribute to the front of the magazine. Flattered, I wrote something that tootled around in a ruminative way called “Changes of Mind.” Other pieces followed, and I allowed myself to believe that I was helping to bring back the personal essay, which had fallen out of fashion. Some of my heroes were G. K. Chesterton, Christopher Morley, Alice Meynell, William Hazlitt, William James, and Samuel Johnson. By 1996 I had enough for a collection,
The Size of Thoughts.
Now it’s 2012 and time, it seems, for a second and slightly heftier accrual. The first section of the book,
LIFE
, is made up of autobiographical bits arranged more or less chronologically; then come some meditations on
READING
and being read to. After that I tell the story of how I sued a public
LIBRARY
and talk about the beauties and wonders of old
NEWSPAPERS
; and then comes some
TECHNO
-journalism and writings on
WAR
and the people who oppose it, followed by a
LAST ESSAY
that I wrote for
The American
Scholar
on mowing the lawn. I like mowing the lawn, and it didn’t seem quite right to end the book
with an impressionistic article on my unsuccessful efforts to master a series of violent video games. You’ll find things in here about kite string, e-readers, earplugs, telephones, coins in fountains, paper mills, Wikipedia, commonplace books, airplane wings, gondolas, the
OED
,
Call of Duty
, Dorothy Day, John Updike, David Remnick, and Daniel Ellsberg. In a number of places I’ve changed a title, or restored a sentence or a passage that was cut to make something fit. I hope you run into a few items that interest you.

My thanks go to Jofie Ferrari-Adler at Simon & Schuster, and to all the careful, kind editors I’ve worked with on these pieces, especially Deborah Garrison, Henry Finder, Alice Quinn, and Cressida Leyshon at
The New Yorker
, Anne Fadiman and Sandra Costich at
The American Scholar
, Robert Silvers and Sasha Weiss at
The New York Review of Books
, Jennifer Scheussler and Laura Marmor at the
New York Times
, and James Marcus at
Harper’s
.

Life
String

I
was two years old when we moved to Rochester, New York. We lived in an apartment on a street that was only a block long, called Strathallan Park.

The shortness of the street was perfect, I thought: it had two ends and not much middle, like a stick that you pick up unconsciously to tap against a fence, or like one of those pieces of string that the people in the food department at Sibley’s, the downtown department store, cut from wall-mounted spools to tie up a box holding a small cake. You could run from our end of the street, near University Avenue, all the way to East Avenue, the grander end, without having to stop to catch your breath, or almost, and when you reached the far corner and turned, panting, with your hands on your knees, you could look down the whole straight sidewalk, past the checkering of driveways and foreshortened snippets of lawn to where you had begun. Everything on my street was knowable by everyone at once.

A few of the lawns along Strathallan Park were, though small, fastidiously groomed—they were bright green and fluffy, and they were edged as well: using a blunt-bladed manual cutter at the end of a push pole, the lawn tenders
had dug narrow, almost hidden troughs or gutters in the turf next to stretches of sidewalk and along walkways, outlining their territories as if they were drawing cartoons of them. The edge gutters looked neat, but they could wrench the ankle of a small-footed person who stepped wrong, and they held dangers for tricycle traffic as well: if you were going at top speed, trying to pass another tricyclist on the left, with your knees pumping like the finger-knuckles of a pianist during the final furious trill of his cadenza, you could catch your wheel in a gutter and flip or lose the race.

Some parts of the Strathallan sidewalk were made of pieces of slate that sloped up and down over the questing roots of elm trees (one elm had a mortal wound in its trunk out of which flowed, like blood, black sawdust and hundreds of curled-up larvae), and some parts of the sidewalk were made of aged concrete, with seams cut into them so that they would crack neatly whenever a growing tree required it of them. These seams made me think of the molded line running down the middle of a piece of Bazooka bubble gum, which you could buy in a tiny candy store in the basement of an apartment building near where we lived: the silent man there charged a penny for each piece of gum, machine-wrapped in waxed paper with triangular corner folds. It had a comic on an inner sheet that we read with great interest but never laughed at. Or, for the same penny, you could buy two unwrapped red candies shaped like Roman coins. These were chewy, and they let light through them when you held them up to the sun, but a red Roman coin couldn’t do what a hard pink block of Bazooka gum could as it began to deform itself under the tremendous stamping and squashing force of the first chew: it couldn’t make your eyes twirl juicily in their sockets; it couldn’t make all your saliva fountains gush at once.

When you pulled part of a piece of well-chewed gum out of your mouth, holding the remainder in place, it would lengthen into drooping filaments that were finer and paler than thread. And I was thinking a fair amount about thread and string and twine in those Strathallan years—
twine
is a beautiful word—about spools of thread, especially after I got the hang of the sewing machine, which I drove as you would a car, listening for and prolonging the electric moan of the foot pedal just before the machine’s silver-knobbed wheel began to turn, and steering the NASCAR scrap of fabric around a demanding closed course of loops and esses. When you floored the Singer’s pedal, the down-darting lever in the side of the machine rose and fell so fast that it became two ghost levers, one at the top of its transit and one at the bottom, and the yanked spool on top responded by hopping and twirling on its spindle, flinging its close-spiraled life away.

BOOK: The Way the World Works: Essays
4.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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