Neuron Culture

Nicholson Baker on Wikipedia

Now here’s a match-up: the fine-grained, highly particularized, unpredictable, and insatiably curious mind of Nicholson Baker and the many-grained field of knowledge expressed in Wikipedia. In a great reading pleasure, Baker reviews John Broughton’s Wikipedia: The Missing Manual in the current issue of the New York Review of Books:

Wikipedia is just an incredible thing. It’s fact-encirclingly huge, and it’s idiosyncratic, careful, messy, funny, shocking, and full of simmering controversies—and it’s free, and it’s fast. In a few seconds you can look up, for instance, “Diogenes of Sinope,” or “turnip,” or “Crazy Eddie,” or “Bagoas,” or “quadratic formula,” or “Bristol Beaufighter,” or “squeegee,” or “Sanford B. Dole,” and you’ll have knowledge you didn’t have before. It’s like some vast aerial city with people walking briskly to and fro on catwalks, carrying picnic baskets full of nutritious snacks.

This is just Baker’s cup of tea.

The man loves reference books, playfulness, and what you might call judicious inclusiveness. As soon as I saw the article listed on the cover — as soon as I snatched it up off the front table — I thought of Baker’s delightful review in those same papges through the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang — a review so lively and memorable and funny, so vividly fresh in my memory, that I am shocked now to find that it was published 14 years ago. In that review, “Leading with the Grumper,” Baker took infectious delight in the wild unpredictability of a dictionary of slang, in the vernacular wit and wisdom embedded in slang — and in the many entries (such as that for grumper that carried the warning “usu. considered vulgar.” That article, from 1994, is not available online at the NY Review of Books site because, the site says, the author requested it not be made so. Baker, I gather, has mixed feelings about online availability.

This article on Wikipedia’s pleasures also delivers. He admires Wikipedia for its democratic nature, its funny and crucial tussles, its occasional vulgarity, its status as “the point of convergence for the self-taught and the expensively educated.”

The cranks had to consort with the mainstreamers and hash it all out—and nobody knew who really knew what he or she was talking about, because everyone’s identity was hidden behind a jokey username. All everyone knew was that the end product had to make legible sense and sound encyclopedic. It had to be a little flat—a little generic—fair-minded—compressed—unpromotional—neutral. The need for the outcome of all edits to fit together as readable, unemotional sentences muted—to some extent—natural antagonisms.

I was not surprised to read that Baker himself has spent a lot of time editing Wikipedia entries; his description of the vortical power of this task is both fun and a bit frightening, it speaks so clearly of the Web’s larger pull.

It’s a great fun read — and educational and relevant for anyone who interested in present struggles of both science and publishing to figure out how to balance the wisdom of the expensively educated with the alternating wisdom and madness of the crowd. Check it out in the March 20 issue of the New York Review of Books.