This collection of essays is Nicholson Baker’s 16th book and prompts reflection on his extraordinary writing career, which began with a novel, “The Mezzanine,” in 1988. That book featured a nameless first-person narrator who provided us with an anatomy of life’s trivia, from how to deal with a broken shoelace to what happens when a man at a urinal, with someone standing at the next one, is unable to perform his act of release. “The Mezzanine” was both relentless and delightful in its study of how ordinary things work.
Baker’s immodest title of his new book, “The Way the World Works,” is in line with what he has been up to since he began as a writer: In the words from the short final essay, “Mowing,” it comes down to “[c]uriosity” — “a way of ordering and indeed paring down the wildness of the world.” In 34 pieces, some of them very brief indeed, Baker continues his project of bringing new dimensions and idiosyncrasies to the personal essay, which he is devoted to reviving and reinventing.
Baker’s longest personal essay was his book-length homage to John Updike in “U and I,” the title a fine indication of how to name one’s book unforgettably. Almost as long, and surely Baker’s most brilliant performance as an essayist, was “Lumber,” a 147-page monster of a piece from “The Size of Thoughts” that begins as follows: “Now feels like a good time to pick a word or a phrase, something short, and go after it, using the available equipment of intellectual retrieval, to see where we get.” The chosen word is “lumber,” and although it’s not possible to chart just where he gets with his reference sources in these packed pages, the journey there is as original and inimitable as any to be found in American writing.
There is nothing in the new collection to rival the Nabokovian intelligence and wit of “Lumber,” but the principle of choosing something and going after it to see where you “get” is always evident. For example, a brief foray into Debussy’s great tone poem, “La Mer,” begins with Baker recalling his high school bassoon teacher, a member of the Rochester Philharmonic who plays him bits from the score of the piece: “What he played didn’t sound like the sea to me, but that wasn’t surprising, because nothing sounds like the sea on a bassoon.” He goes on to purchase Pierre Boulez’s recording and begins to hear Debussy’s “side-slipping water-slopes, with cold spray blown off their crests.” The next two-and-a-half pages take him to Eastbourne, where Debussy finished “La Mer” in a hotel looking out on the English Channel. The journey ends with Baker like Debussy, looking out the window, and imagining that he is seeing what the composer saw.
Perhaps the most telling of the literature-directed essays is “Narrow Ruled” about his habit and that of other writers of keeping commonplace books, “copybooks” in which they transcribe, by hand, paragraphs from their reading that seem worth memorializing. This handwriting is therapeutic for the transcriber; it “makes me a happier person: my own bristling, brain-urchins of worry melt in the strong solvent of other people’s grammar.” After giving us nine pages of praise for and analysis of copybooking Baker ends with one of his signature changes of tone and style: “Just don’t do it too much — and always use quotation marks.”
But Baker is no sentimental Luddite. His technical expertise, his fascination with new media was evident in “Lumber’’; here essays on Wikipedia, Kindle 2, Google,and video games may be found enlightening or controversial to readers more saavy than this one.William H. Pritchard is a professor of English at Amherst College. His most recent book is “On Poets and Poetry.’’