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Book Review: The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

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An irresistible book comes along every so often. I do not intend to read it. I didn't ask for it. I'm busy reading other books that I requested or agreed to receive. Still, I can't resist holding this new one a moment longer. Is it the title, the picture under it, the feel of the cover paper? Nice. It almost matches the background of my blog, I notice.

The cover graphic shows only a ripe plum. I don't like the title, The Anthologist. Never read Baker's other books. Nice cover. I like the way the little book feels as I turn it over to find the plum cut open on the back, a plum pit on the spine. "What is this?" I wonder, purposefully averting my eyes from the hype. I open it to riffle the pages. They also feel nice, soft, even though they don't have deckle edges, which I dearly love.

Reading the first page is a fatal error. I'm hooked. Hard. It begins:

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. But everything I know about poetry…. What is poetry? Poetry is prose in slow motion.

Gasp! The guy sounds gay! (He's not.) It's another introspective, gloomy poet maundering about his lack of fame, fortune and current writer's block, I suspect. (No, he's blocked writing an introduction to a book of others' poems, an anthology; like me writing about other writers and their books.)

Multiple story strands braid together smoothly in what I thought at first was a Hallmark gift book, although it's a little larger than that. It's fiction all written well in first person, the sign of a master writer. Anyone can mope about and brood on personal tales. Pretending to be someone else brooding takes some talent. What continued to hold my interest was the didactic flow about writing poetry threaded through Chowder's struggles with middle-aged angst, love lost, strength ebbing, single male foibles.

Baker plays with words in a way that delights. At times, I had the creepy sensation that he was inside my head, thinking in the self-referential way that makes sense only to my self. He isn't afraid to expose those distant connections we make when rummaging around in our mental attics, wasting time to avoid responsibilities, waiting for something to happen in our lives. And the character talks as I do (though not here – space constraints and all that) throwing in all those slightly irrelevant but punchy sideways asides.

It's a quick read, requisite for light summer fare; however, The Anthologist is quite filling and sticks to your mental ribs. Let's see, what else did this guy write? Something called Vox, another, Human Smoke (sounds horrible). What else? Where’s the poop sheet on this piece? Ah, The Fermata – is that about theorems? And Double Fold, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. I begin to think I’ve been missing something good.


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About Georganna Hancock

Retired San Diego publisher, journalist, freelance editor and writer, blogged almost daily for eight years at A WRITERS EDGE. She helped writers on the path to writing success with critiques, edits and publishing advice. Find her author page on Amazon and her tweets on Twitter, where she's aka @GLHancock. Georganna's first writing appeared in print in the 1960s. She worked as a journalist for many years. She reviewed books for the FORT PIERCE NEWS TRIBUNE and THE LOUISVILLE COURIER-JOURNAL and wrote for THE MIAMI HERALD, regional publications, and many national magazines. She was a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the San Diego Professional Editors Network and the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, for which she served as Web Manager. Books reviewed may have been received as gifts. All her writings are protected by U.S. copyright law.