From The Telegraph:
Nicholson Baker published his debut novel, The Mezzanine, in 1988 – the year of Perestroika, Lockerbie, the Clapham Junction rail crash and the end of the Iran-Iraq war. The discovery of a new writer hardly registers against world events, but anyone who read Baker’s novel at the time would agree that this was something special. The Mezzanine is slim, barely even a novella, yet it captures the gold rush of the Eighties as well as novels by Martin Amis, Tom Wolfe or Bret Easton Ellis. It focuses on two great markers of the time: the new self-assurance of office workers, and the brash architecture of the world’s great financial centres. The Mezzanine could hardly have been more timely – nor more random and oblique. The narrator is unaware that the weight of the times rests on his shoulders. He is whiling away a lunch hour, pondering the design of drinking straws and the most efficient way of putting on socks.
Random. Oblique. Baker would probably resist these descriptions. They hardly do justice to an impressive body of work that encompasses nine novels, three full-length non-fiction books and a previous collection of essays. But just look at the things that interest Baker: straws, string, matches, old newspapers, earplugs! The list is so bizarre one has to stop and think where one could actually buy this stuff. The answer, of course, is the internet, which serves to drag Baker back to the present. In his latest collection, The Way the World Works, he also writes subtly and eloquently on Google, Wikipedia, multiplayer video games, the Kindle and Steve Jobs. But whether he chooses arcane objects or hi-tech ones, he lavishes so much care on his analyses that he frees these objects of the meanings and values we usually place on them. This might be a vinyl record, the game God of War III, the feel of twine or, to take an innocent-seeming example from his essay on the Kindle, it might be words: words-as-things; that is to say, typographical objects rather than carriers of meaning. Baker declares that one reason he reads is because he finds words comforting: “when you wake at 3am and you need big, sad, well-placed words to tumble slowly into the basin of your mind… hold [an iPhone] a few inches from your face, with the words enlarged and the screen’s brightness slider bar slid to its lowest setting… move your thumb over it, as if you were getting ready to deal a card; when you do, the page will slide out of the way and a new one will appear. After a while, your thoughts will drift off to the unused siding where the old tall weeds are, and the string of curving words will toot a mournful toot, and pull ahead. You will roll to a stop.”