Friday, April 8, 2011

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

In keeping with the poetry theme for April, I just finished Nicholson Baker's latest book, The Anthologist which follows a short period in the life of poet Paul Chowder as he struggles to write the introduction to his anthology of rhyming poems.

Now before I begin, I have to admit that I have a love/hate relationship with Nicholson Baker.  On the one hand, his writing is beautiful.  He captures the small, quiet details of life exactly right. On the other hand, he seems to have a fatwah out against librarians which kind of hurts my feelings and makes me feel slightly traitorous to be seen reading him by my colleagues. (Said fatwah is outlined in his book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper in which he takes serious issue with the practice of microfilming.  Here's Michael Dirda's review of the book. Oddly, my library's copy of it is missing, which makes me wonder if it was an inside job.)

I wasn't sure about this book when I started it.  The narrator isn't just unreliable, he seems downright nuts.  He's going off on all these random tangents about poetry and then you find out his girlfriend has left him and he has a mouse living in his kitchen. One minute he'll be rambling on about Louise Bogan and Theodore Roethke's love life and the next moment he's saying stuff like "If I had a ponytail, which I don't, I'd cut it off with four slow scissor cuts and bury it in the garden with the rubber band still around it." What now?

But pretty soon I settled in to the pace of this book and actually found myself enjoying it.  It's kind of like listening to your crazy old uncle at a family reunion.  At first you look around for someone to save you, but when you see that rescue isn't imminent, you start really listening to him and realize that maybe he's got something to say. Like this:

". . .enjambment is a word that means that you're wending your away along a line of poetry, and you're walking right out to the very end of the line, way out, and it's all going fine, and you're expecting syntax to give you a polite tap on the shoulder to wait for a moment. Just a second, sir, or madam, while we rhyme, or come to the end of our phrasal unit or whatever. While we rest. But instead the syntax pokes at you and says hustle it, pumpkin, keep walking, don't rest. So naturally, because you're stepping out onto nothingness, you fall. You tumble forward, gaaaah, and you end up all discombobulated at the beginning of the next line, with a banana peel on your head and some coffee grounds in your shirt pocket. In other words, you're "jammed" into the next line--that's what enjambment is."
Can't you just imagine the narrator standing in your personal space bubble telling you all this and at first you're all annoyed and distracted, but then you're like, hey, that's the best explanation of enjambment that I've ever heard. The whole book is like that.

It's not for everyone, but I think I liked it.

<I checked this book out of my library.>


  1. Thanks for adding me to your blogroll! I'm so glad you did, because I've got this book in my TBR pile and it would make a perfect read for Poetry Month! Thanks for the reminder.

  2. I love your blog! Power through the first couple of chapters of The Anthologist--the narrator does take a bit of getting used to. But, I'm really thinking of purchasing the book so that I can mark it up with sticky notes for all the wonderful passages on the nature of poetry. I'm still thinking about it a week later.

    Thank you so much for stopping by my blog!