Baker’s ‘World’

Their book offers a kaleidoscopic tour through an ebullient moment in American history when the country was emerging from the shadowy gaslight age and bursting into the glare of the modern. It is a big, lush, coffee-table-size book suffused with gaiety and the optimism of an age blissfully unaware of darknesses soon to come. What a delight it must have been a hundred years ago to find the World on your Sunday doorstep.

Now long gone and mostly forgotten, the World was actually three papers; morning, evening, and Sunday publications each had distinctive characters. In the Sunday paper Pulitzer gave artists, cartoonists, photographers, and graphic designers—as well as editors—great creative freedom. Their impact was heightened after 1898 by Pulitzer’s purchase of a new high-speed color printing press. A full-page ad boasted that it was thirty feet long, eight feet wide, fifteen feet high, weighed some seventy tons, and was made up of some 40,000 separate parts.

“Like rainbow tints in the spray are the hues that splash and pour from its lightning cylinders,” said one of its ads. “THE MOST MARVELLOUS MECHANICAL PRODUCTION OF THE AGE,” said another. Perhaps it was. Looking nowadays at what those lightning cylinders produced, Nicholson Baker suggests, can produce “a sense of the exuberance and modernness and strangeness” of that old New York such as no history book can easily create.

The World on Sunday is the result of a heroic piece of cultural preservation, for Joseph Pulitzer has been dead since 1911, his last newspaper closed in 1931, and physical evidence that the World ever existed has long been limited mostly to microfilm. Microfilm is better than nothing, but not much if you are trying to discover what a vanished newspaper, and a vanished time, were like. Once hundreds of thousands of fresh newspapers poured out of Pulitzer’s Park Row “skyscraper” every day, on Sunday as many as 500,000 copies, yet of all this, as Baker notes in his introduction, next to nothing survives.

Baker himself is a warrior in the struggle against America’s throwaway culture, specializing in bookish matters. He has strongly criticized libraries for replacing their card-file indexes with electronic blips and for miniaturizing original documents and papers on inch-and-a-half-wide strips of microfilm.* Microfilm enables them to clear shelves of a lot of cumbersome stuff after shrinking it to fit on plastic strips. Since librarians are among the world’s most civilized people (who else does such priceless work so cheerfully for such rotten pay?), most of them probably dislike the carnage as much as Baker does, but they are prisoners of a society that is running out of storage space. As every suburban homeowner knows, America’s astonishing plenty threatens to overflow every last crevice and cranny, every hallway and closet, attic and cellar, garage and crawl space, and finally overwhelm everyone too sentimental to pack grandmother’s wedding pictures off to the dump. America’s astonishing credit cards make us all victims of the sorcerer’s apprentice. No wonder libraries settle for lifeless little…

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