Are collections of essays by famous novelists passé? Who precisely is their audience? The question kept popping up while meandering through Nicholson Baker’s latest roundup of nonfiction pieces, The Way the World Works. Once upon a time, when writers gained a certain measure of distinction and renown, every scrap of prose that they had published in their lifetimes (and often the scraps that hadn’t escaped from their notebooks into the light of day) were corralled between leather covers across numerous gilt-stamped volumes. Libraries are filled with the Collected Works of the famous and forgotten, the literary miscellany of dozens of authors now unvisited except by specialist scholars. The impulse to bring together every stray musing by a writer, regardless of its worth, and fix it for posterity has yet to entirely dissipate.
But as anyone who’s waded through a scattershot collection of pieces written for various occasions can attest, the results are rarely repaid by the effort — this is why two of the happiest words to find on a book jacket are “Selected Essays.” The Way the World Works, alas, doesn’t apply the wise rule of thumb that less is more. The book has an overly generous helping of the ephemeral prose Baker’s penned for magazines over the last 20 years, including brief squibs written for various themed issues of The New Yorker. Bits like “String,” “How I Met My Wife” and “Why I Like the Telephone” were fine in their original context, but here are so slight that they induce nothing but a shrug (many of them wouldn’t be much more diverting even if they had appeared on a blog, the current repository of prose vignettes meant to be consumed and forgotten). Of the pieces in the first section of the book, entitled “Life,” only the Joe Brainard-like memory palace of “One Summer” lingers in the reader’s mind.
Baker’s more substantial essays, however, often suffer from more serious weaknesses. When Gore Vidal died a few weeks ago, it was a commonplace in his obituaries that he was really more of an essayist who happened to write novels; a reverse claim could be made that Baker is indeed really a novelist who just happens to attempt essays. There’s clumsiness and awkwardness in much of Baker’s attempts at journalism — reading his gee-whiz profile of New Yorker editor and journalist David Remnick makes the reader wish she was reading a profile written with the skill and insight of, well, David Remnick. Similarly, Baker’s arguments and analyses occasionally have a half-baked flavor (In “Why I’m a Pacifist,” his defense of Human Smoke, his controversial nonfiction account of pacifism during the Second World War, Baker says things like “The Jews needed immigration visas, not Flying Fortresses.” While true on one level, I can’t help but think that’s akin to saying “We should just let those displaced people stay in our house, instead of arresting the arsonist who’s burning down their homes.”).
This isn’t to say Baker is one of those writers of fiction whose talents are unsuited to nonfiction. His 2001 book Double Fold is a first-rate jeremiad against libraries’ destruction of primary and archival materials in the rush to digitize. The essays in the section “Libraries and Newspapers” read as adjuncts to that book, and they are excellent, impassioned explorations of the importance of preserving the past in a way that makes its materiality, and not just its content, accessible to the future (Baker makes a convincing and correct case that the materiality of old newspapers are part of their content). He is also on firmer ground when he talks about writing, as in pieces like “Narrow Ruled” and “I Said to Myself,” and in informative, bemused essays on the changes in reading technology that wash over us daily (“The Charms of Wikipedia,” “Papermaking,” “Kindle 2”).
The best essays are those wherein Baker is simply reporting and storytelling, especially essays like “Grab Me a Gondola,” about the lives of modern gondoliers in Venice, and “We Don’t Know the Language We Don’t Know,” about antiwar protesters in Washington, D. C. Even these, however, still have that slightness of engagement that betrays their origins as more occasional than not. Baker makes little attempt to refine any of these essays into the sort of writing that either makes arguments too compelling to ignore or offers insights too clear, too penetrating, to dismiss. Which brings things round to the question at the beginning — dose anyone need 315 pages of a novelist’s miscellaneous journalism between hard covers? A selection of 200 pages would have done as well; better yet, simply collecting these occasionals on a comprehensive website would have satisfied Baker’s more devoted readers. Or, pace Baker himself when he succumbs somewhat to the pleasures of the Kindle 2: For ephemeral writing, it’s perhaps best to just download the e-book.
THE WAY THE WORLD WORKS: ESSAYS Nicholson Baker, Simon & Schuster, 315 pages