Nicholson Baker is at his best when he's a miniaturist. The few books that skidded out of his control—his most recent attempt at erotica, House of Holes; the Bush-bashing Checkpoint—expanded their scopes beyond the microscopic. Baker seems baffled by concepts that are bigger than a bread box. But when he focuses his full power on something small and manageable—an escalator ride in The Mezzanine, the fraught tension of a single phone-sex conversation in Vox, the importance of paper in Double Fold—he's sublime, a master of observational language.
Baker's newest essay collection, The Way the World Works, eases back toward his skills as a miniaturist, and it's a welcome return. This is a writer who's perfectly willing to write a six-and-a-half-page essay about the words he's seen painted on the wings of airplanes ("DO NOT WALK OUTSIDE THIS AREA," "ELECTRIC HEATER BLANKET 110 VOLTS," "HOIST POINT SLEEVE ONLY") and, what's more, he's able to make the essay crackle with little bursts of discovery. One memorable set of wings have "faint wind-wear lines streaking like aurora borealises," a pattern painted on a wing seems "by a trick of perspective to extend for miles," Baker frets over the "worrisome" fact that "the same runway can be used for takeoffs and landings."
It's telling that the book opens with an account of Baker's childhood street, which was exactly one block long, which meant that as a kid, he could "look down the whole straight sidewalk" and take the whole thing in at once. These are ideas that Baker can wrap his brain around—gondolas, the way writers frame characters' thoughts in italics or quotes, Wikipedia editing—and relate to us in a chatty package.
If it sounds to you like I'm being dismissive by saying Baker works best on a small scale, you don't appreciate the man's genius. The central section of the book laments the alarming rate at which libraries are destroying their physical newspaper collections. It has been a long time since anyone has spent this much lyrical energy on newsprint:
The paper was curled around itself, and when I opened it and began paging through it I could feel in every section the timed-release coolness that is always associated with newsprint. You keep getting outside air on your hands as you read. Newsprint is its own insulation. A single page makes a rattling sound when you turn it, but the whole issue is quiet, muffled by its own layered pulp.
The first essay in Works, the one about Baker's tiny street, ends with an account of a kite-flying incident in which his sturdy bat-shaped kite climbs ever higher into the sky, "asking for more string." Baker and his friends tie more and more string to the kite as it lifts, to the point where everyone in town, and for miles around, can see the thing "getting more and more infinite every minute." That's what we have here. When you put this book down, you can see everything for thousands of miles around, with clear eyes.