Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Nicholson Baker Goes Paperless; Group Gropes; Tony Earley's Good Weep

Nicholson Baker, patron saint of lost causes, has announced a new enthusiasm: Wikipedia. “It’s like some vast aerial city,” he

Nicholson Baker, patron saint of lost causes, has announced a new enthusiasm: Wikipedia. “It’s like some vast aerial city,” he writes in The New York Review of Books (March 20, $5.50), “with people walking briskly to and fro on catwalks, carrying picnic baskets full of nutritious snacks.” I think that means he likes it.

The same guy who—according to Wikipedia, natch—“established a non-profit corporation, the American Newspaper Repository, to rescue old newspapers from destruction by libraries,” the same guy who lamented in The New Yorker the loss of library card catalogs to “retrospective conversion” (i.e., conversion to electronic database), now wants to save Wikipedia articles from deletion. Just as he suddenly switched from virtuoso literary experimentation (The Mezzanine and Room Temperature) to virtuoso sexual experimentation (Vox and The Fermata), he’s now switched from printed matter to cyberspace.

And he’s going at it with the same fabulous, nerdy passion. He warns that with the deletion of Wikipedia articles, “a lot of good work—verifiable, informative, brain-leapingly strange—is being cast out of this paperless, infinitely expandable accordion folder by people who have a narrow, almost grade-schoolish notion of what sort of curiosity an on-line encyclopedia will be able to satisfy in the years to come.” So what’s his solution? “Wikimorgue—a bin of broken dreams where all rejects could still be read, as long as they weren’t libelous or otherwise illegal. Like other middens, it would have much to tell us over time. We could call it the Deletopedia.”

Did I mentionMr. Baker’s new book? Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (Simon & Schuster, $30) is a history book—but compared to conventional history, this pointillist experiment is “brain-leapingly strange.”

 

BACK TO WIKIWORLD, which finds another booster in Clay Shirky, author of a thoughtful, hopeful volume called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (Penguin Press, $25.95). Mr. Shirky writes cleanly and convincingly about the intersection of technological innovation and social change; he makes both the science and the sociology accessible without any of the smarmy seductiveness of Malcolm Gladwell and his legion of imitators. Here Comes Everybody looks at the way groups assemble and cooperate in the age of the Internet, the Web and the mobile phone, and the impact of exponentially amplified group effort on traditional institutions such as corporations and governments. One of his test cases, of course, is the indispensable free encyclopedia, about which he’s delightfully clear-eyed. Two examples:

“Because Wikipedia is a process, not a product, it replaces guarantees offered by institutions with probabilities supported by process.”

“Wikipedia, which looks like a reference work to the average viewer, is in fact a bureaucracy mainly given over to arguing. The articles are the residue of the argument, being the last thing anyone declined to argue about.”

 

IF YOU’RE LOOKING for a good weep, score a copy of Tony Earley’s The Blue Star: It has one of those happy ending shadowed by the possibility of tragic events just out sight. Does a clinging farewell kiss at a railway station in 1942 always cause the tears to well up? Maybe not—but in this case, carry a second hankie. Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Nicholson Baker Goes Paperless; Group Gropes; Tony Earley's Good Weep