The Anthologist – Nicholson Baker

The Anthologist – Nicholson Baker

Book Review of The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker 

Like many readers, I have a vague and sporadic interest in poetry and like to browse favourite anthologies from time to time.  I occasionally set pen to paper myself, usually when something has moved me more than usual, but only in a private way and definitely not for sharing.  But on the whole I tend to forget about poetry and it doesn’t feature greatly in my reading experience.

Last week, Nicholson Baker’s new book The Anthologist came my way (I’d ordered it from the library before they’d actually got a copy and so I was the first person to borrow it – what a treat!) and has managed to get me interested in poetry again – and one or two poetry books are back on my bedside table.  I’m not alone in finding that The Anthologist has this effect – The Guardian books blog had a similar experience and described this book as “an elegant and surprisingly emotional book; one of the finest of the year”

Nicholson Baker is a interesting author.  He writes slightly quirky novels like The Anthologist, or A Box of Matches, but was also responsible for the substantial pacifist tract against World War II, Human Smoke which I reviewed here.  He is a keen evangelist for Wikipedia and has recently published just about the most useful article I have read about the Kindle e-reader, in The New Yorker magazine.

The Anthologist is a strange book.  On the one hand its a first person account by the fictional poet Paul Chowder of a period of his life in which he was charged with writing the introduction to a new poetry anthology.  

Paul describes his approach to poetry and spends quite a bit of time discussing poetic forms, great poets of the past and their lives and why some poems “work” and others don’t.  But mixed in with this is a personal story of how Paul has lost his girlfriend Roz.  She seems to have given up on him, finally finding his chaotic and disorganised approach to life just too difficult to deal with.  Paul misses her greatly and throughout the book launches various half-baked schemes to win her back.

The remarkable thing from the reader’s perspective is how Paul’s personal difficulties impact on what he says about poetry, and in a way, almost form a new poem about the inner life of a middle aged man going through a difficult time.  

The book is very funny, for we get highly involved with the minutiae of Paul’s life – we hear about the de-fleaing of a dog, the making of a bead necklace as a gift to Roz, the practical difficulties of laying a wooden floor and the best way to pick blueberries while on a walk.

We get little insighful reflections along the way:

Isn’t crying a good thing?  Why would we want to give pills to people so they don’t weep?  When you read a great line in a poem, what’s the first thing you do?  You can’t help it.  Crying is a good thing.  And rhyming and weeping – there are obvious linkages between the two.  When you listen to a child cry, he cries in meter.  When you’re an adult you don’t sob quite the same way.  Bue when you’re a little kid, you go “Ih-hih-hih-hih, ih-hih-hih-hih”.  You actually cry in duple meter.  Poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing.

I found this a beguiling read.  I wanted it to go on and on.  There was something about it which showed that in the midst of immense difficulties, the small details of life can carry you through.  The buying of a loaf of good bread with some olives and taking time to savour them can do you good.  Going to bed surrounded by books – “I never make the bed – its like a stew of books.  

The bed is the liquid medium.  Its a Campbells Chunky Soup of books”.  Or going out to the garden at midnight to sit in a chair and listen to the night.  Baker’s writing has the Zen-like quality which brings you to a halt in your hurried life and says “take your time” – a quality which must be essential if you’re going to make any sense out of a new poem.

I understand that its worth getting hold of the audio book of The Anthologist because the author reads it himself.  I might even do that – or perhaps ask for it for Christmas.  I have a feeling that its something I would return to over many years.  In the meantime, this is one book I keep dipping back into after I’ve read it and when its out in paperback I’ll definitely buy a copy.