The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

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The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: Miniaturist novelist turns his hand to dissecting the mind of a failed poet and struggling anthologist. He produces a warm and fascinating book about poetry and personality.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 308 Date: August 2010
Publisher: Pocket Bookk
ISBN: 978-1847397829

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Readers who know of Nicholson Baker don't go to his work expecting convoluted plot, fast-paced action or non-stop drama. His novels at their best, dissect, in minute detail, the most intimate thoughts and daily doings, usually of a single character. They are revealing and surprising, and revel in language itself, like poetry. In other ways they are unlike poetry, which deals in suggestion and compression. And Baker's novels generally deal in the opposite.

Nevertheless, the Anthologist, in as much as it is about anything, is about poetry. Its narrator, Paul Chowder, is a published poet. He appears to be well-known and respected by his peers. But he sees himself as a failure. His poetry has dried up. Not only are few editors interested in his work these days, but his most pressing task: to write a foreword to an anthology of rhyming poetry he has compiled, just isn't happening.

In other respects his life is equally stalled. His girlfriend Roz has moved out, exasperated at his procrastination, and he's short of money. He does odd jobs for his neighbour and does a bit of shopping and a few domestic chores. And that's it really.

So why is this a compelling read? Well, there are the questions of whether Roz will return and whether the foreword will get written. I won't give away the former. But maybe it's not spoiling too much to reveal that as you read the book, you realise that, in between the humdrum tasks, surreal imaginings, and Paul's ephemeral musings, are nestled some pertinent thoughts.

You notice that Chowder has original things to say about the origins of rhyme and the nature of poetic metre. He has acute insights about poets past and present, famous and obscure. He is, in short, a good writer about poetry. And there in front of you, is his foreword. As a bonus, you come to like to him along the way, for he is a modest, funny, kind person.

This book combines the best of Baker, the miniaturist analyst of everyday life, with his understated skills as a storyteller. The result is a charming portrait of a flawed but attractive personality and an original essay on poetry and art. Whichever way you prefer to see it, It deserves to be discovered, read and cherished.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For a more light-hearted look at the life of a poet, we can recommend The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter. We also enjoyed Travelling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker.

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