By Nicholson Baker. Simon & Schuster, $25.
Nicholson Baker’s extensive, unorthodox collection of books ranges from novels filled with idle thoughts of homely pleasures (The Mezzanine), to nonfictional polemics that are usually devoted to lost causes (Double Fold) and kaleidoscopic sex fantasies set in wildly imaginative playlands (House of Holes). In his new collection of previously published essays, the author’s curiosity returns to the intimate and the personal.
Organized into five sections with headings including “Reading” and “Technology,” Baker’s obsessive first-person focus is brought to bear on the minutiae of everyday life. In “How I Met My Wife,” a piece so private as to make the reader feel almost like an intruder, he remembers every detail of the portentous encounter, down to the “ticking sound” of his bicycle’s “slowly revolving tire.” Later in the collection, Baker explains exactly how to write while wearing earplugs. In “Sunday at the Dump,” he lists each item left for collection in South Berwick, Maine’s “swap shop”—toasters, an infant’s car seat, a textbook of surgery—before landing on the quiet, incandescent reflection: “Maybe it’s the clearness of the bags that makes the dump seem like a place of confidences—everyone can see just what everyone doesn’t want.”
Such microscopy avoids triviality thanks to Baker’s unshakable (though often futile) impulse to preserve—both in essays that demonstrate an archivist’s interest in how we record memory and history, and in those that relish and animate the transitory and supposedly familiar. The self-imposed restrictions on the author’s world become a kind of productive constraint, allowing Baker to look at the artifacts of quotidian reality from odd, fresh angles. As The Way the World Works generously demonstrates, it’s only when the ordinary is thus honored that it can glow with such significance.