The Way the World Works, By Nicholson Baker

To talk of cabbages and strings

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The Independent Culture

The first piece in Nicholson Baker's second miscellany of non-fiction is a personal essay called "String". It includes his childhood memories of the "interestingly herringboned threads" insulating a telephone cord, and the "moulded line running down the middle of a piece of Bazooka bubble gum ... machine-wrapped in waxed paper with triangular folds". By page five, I'd devised a little game: what you do is find a particularly folksy or nostalgic passage to quote, and then a few lines of one of Grandpa Simpson's rambling monologues from an episode of The Simpsons, and see who can tell the difference.

Here's an easy one for round one: compare "There's an interesting story behind this nickel. In 1957, I remember it was, I got up in the morning and made myself a piece of toast..." with "One summer I went on a bike trip through Quebec and Maine, eating four peanut butter and jelly sandwiches a day ..."

The game only works a line or two at a time, though, because Baker's prose has a specificity, elegance and personality that even Simpsons writers cannot match. The spiral of a spiral-bound notebook is "a bit of chromium cursiveness", for example. And for all his descriptive flourishes, Baker still has a way of getting to the precise heart of a matter: "Battleships and gold epaulettes are ridiculous," he writes in "Why I'm a Pacifist".

His writing is also full of the kind of cognitive sharp left turns that betray a true gift for metaphor. "I Said to Myself" is about the different ways novelists have chosen to delineate interior speech. And yet somehow, we get to the image of James Joyce "hanging out raw, wet harvestings of visual and emotive protoplasm to dry on grammatical clotheslines" from a groundhog whose tail reminded Baker of a saucepan handle.

In this collection, as much as in his novels, Baker proves himself one of the great miniaturists working today. His talent is for the telling detail; for the accretion of minutiae into, if not the whole story, then at least the most important part of one. His review of the Kindle 2, for example, isn't only about ebook file formats and the limitations of the device's grey screen ("this four-by-five window onto an overcast afternoon"), but also the history of the company that designed the electrophoretic screens. And what electrophoresis is anyway. And the "puffy clear bladders of plastic" amid which the device came packed.

Despite the title, then, The Way the World Works is only about a small number of specific things: memories and feelings; US politics and social history; newspapers, books, libraries, videogames and Google; kite string, earplugs, gondolas, paper mills, and mowing the lawn. The attention which Bakers pays to each, though, means that these are subjects enough.

Oh, and I'm sure you knew, but it was Grandpa Simpson who had toast and Baker who had the sandwiches.