Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Review: The Anthologist

Written by Nicholson Baker
Simon and Schuster, 2009; 245 pages

Publisher's description:
The Anthologist is narrated by Paul Chowder – a once-in-a-while-published kind of poet who is writing the introduction to a new anthology of poetry. He's having a hard time getting started because his career is floundering, his girlfriend Roz has recently left him, and he is thinking about the great poets throughout history who have suffered far worse and deserve to feel sorry for themselves. He has also promised to reveal many wonderful secrets and tips and tricks about poetry, and it looks like the introduction will be a little longer than he'd thought.

What unfolds is a wholly entertaining and beguiling love story about poetry: from Tennyson, Swinburne, and Yeats to the moderns (Roethke, Bogan, Merwin) to the staff of The New Yorker, what Paul reveals is astonishing and makes one realize how incredibly important poetry is to our lives. At the same time, Paul barely manages to realize all of this himself, and the result is a tenderly romantic, hilarious, and inspired novel.

My thoughts:

I absolutely loved this book! It's a terrific read – there, I've said it, and I'm tempted just to leave it at that. You really should run out and grab a copy and read it as soon as possible. From the opening lines ("Hello, this is Paul Chowder and I'm going to try to tell you everything I know. Well, not everything I know, because a lot of what I know, you know."), I found it charming and funny and frustrating and thought-provoking and outrageous and moving – both unreal and all too believable, and just a lot of things that I really wasn't expecting, given the subject matter.

At the beginning of his tale, Paul Chowder promises to tell us "everything I know about poetry. All my tips and tricks and woes and worries. . . ." And that's just what he does. By book's end, if we've paid attention, we've actually learned quite a lot about poetry and the people who write it – but mostly we've learned all Paul Chowder's (and, I suppose, Nicholson Baker's) theories on the subject. The book turns out to be, in itself, quite a nice little introduction to the world of poetry, and to modern pop culture as well. Baker/Chowder throws in hundreds of references to books, poets, products, TV shows, movies, etc. There's Slaid Cleaves, Anne Boleyn, Margot Fonteyn, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jens Thiel (and his chair), Paul Oakenfold, Don Rickles, Red Skelton, Louise Bogan, Geoffrey Chaucer, Edward Lear, "Johnny Crow's Garden," A.A. Milne, Dr. Seuss, Gilbert and Sullivan, Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, Sidney Lanier, Christopher Morley, William Wordsworth, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Tennyson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Frost, Sara Teasdale, Charles Causley, W.H. Auden, Walter de la Mare, James Fenton, and The New Yorker. And that's just in the first twenty pages! It's a pity the book comes without footnotes and an index – they would have saved me a lot of time spent with Google and Wikipedia.

And in there amongst all the theorizing about verse, and the discussions of iambic pentameter, there's the story of Paul's writer's block and his doubts about his own career as a poet ("I'm basically willing to do anything to come up with a really good poem. . . . That's my goal in life. And it hasn't happened."), and the traumatic breakup with his girlfriend Roz. Paul's life seems to be falling apart at the moment, and he's doing his best to get it back together – trying to hide his desperation behind his rambling lecture on verse. But we see it, in flashes at first, and then in more detail as the book goes on. And, of course, what makes it all the more painful is his knowledge that the blame for Roz's departure is all his own:
I'm not going to get all maudlin about why Roz moved on. She moved on, period. I know why. It's because I didn't write the introduction to my anthology. And I was morose at times with her, and I was shockingly messy. And I had irregular sleeping habits. And she was supporting us, and I was nine years older than she was. And I didn't want to walk the dog as much as I should have. And I got farty when we had Caesar salads. And I do miss her. (p. 27)
I came to really love Paul Chowder, even with all his faults. He can be pedantic and crude, but also lovable and sensitive, and very funny. And he's the only other person I've ever come across (in fiction or in real life) who seems to feel the same way I feel about haiku:
This, children, is a kind of poetry that makes perfect, thrilling sense in Japanese, and makes no sense whatsover in English. . . . This form is completely out of step with the English language. And the person who foisted it on us – that person was a demon. (p.73)
This isn't a book with a great deal of plot – not a lot of action. But there's a lot happening, all the same. I won't say any more about the story or how it works itself out, except that I found the ending very satisfying, if just slightly less than totally believable – it fit the story and the story-teller perfectly.


Full Disclosure Statement:
I got this book from the public library. They let me keep it for several weeks without charging me any fees. The library card which allowed me to borrow the book was also free of charge. When I finished reading the book, I was not allowed to keep it; I returned it to the same library. No moneys changed hands. No one asked me to read this book or attempted to influence my response to it. This review represents my unsolicited personal opinion of this book. No one paid me or offered to reward or compensate me in any way in return for this review or for any recommendation that may appear in or be inferred from this review.


  1. This book looks and sounds wonderful. I should add that I found your disclosure statement very funny. :)

  2. I will add this to my "to read" list. Sounds like a great book. By the way, my blog is giving away free books and jewelry, please feel free to participate

  3. You've convinced me - I'm adding it to my wish list.

  4. I put this on my to-read list when I saw it mentioned in Bookmarks Magazine - glad to hear it should stay on the list!

  5. I've got Baker's book _The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber_ in my bedside TBR pile, but I've had my eye on this one at the bookstore for a while. It covers two of my favourite categories: books about books and the campus novel.

    I love your disclaimer--just the right tone for the purpose!

  6. This goes on my TBR list right now! Thanks for the great review. I write poetry so the book has a great appeal!


Welcome and thanks for leaving me a comment. I love to hear from visitors.

Also, please note that while I appreciate the thought, I don't play the blog awards game. I think you all deserve awards! But you might think about becoming a follower of my blog -- that would really be the best award.