Nicholson Baker on Wikipedia

One of my favourite writers, Nicholson Baker, recently wrote an essay on Wikipedia for The New York Review of Books:

Wikipedia was 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.

To his credit, he actually made a bunch of edits to Wikipedia articles, and seems to have spent a reasonable amount of time pickling in the community.

I’ve always admired Baker’s awesome vocabulary. To pick a random example, he just slides the word ‘panjandrum‘ into a concluding paragraph, as casual as a drop pass.

The essay is ostensibly a review of Wikipedia: The Missing Manual. However, like almost all literary book reviews that I read, the book itself seems an afterthought. This tradition of literary review seems like it’s centuries old–I wonder how it started? It’s unique among the art forms in mainstream media. Movies, plays, dance, visual art–they all only get the same standard treatment, entirely focussed on the artwork itself. Why did books turn out differently?

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