Book Review

The Anthologist, A Novel by Nicholson Baker. Simon & Schuster, 2009. $25 (Hardcover).

Reviewed by Richard Swanson

This isn’t a poetry book but a quirky novel about poetry, hard to fit in any best-seller category, making it that much more attractive.

Paul, Paul Chowder, struggles with too much information. In his sixties, exiled from academe, he can’t get himself centered. Poor Paul’s girlfriend,Roz, sole source of their income, has had enough of his muddly-headedness and will leave him, but maybe not for good.

Paul understands, genially bearing her no malice. Good money can come his way, he knows, if he can write the 40 page introduction to a poetry anthology he’s put together, which a friend will publish. Shouldn’t be hard at all. He has to get it right, though.

Inertia laden Chowder (uh huh, he resides in New England) spends a lot of time sorting through literary anecdotes while revealing his writerly habits. Forget plot or epiphanies. Take in Paul’s rituals with magic marker highlighters and his neighborhood excursions, as he delves into 20th Century poetry. Name a poet—Pound, Eliot, Berry-man, Plath, whoever—and Chowder knows a story. The anecdotes mean something, yet he has to separate literary substance from historical gossip, and that takes time. And more time. Meanwhile no one’s paying the bills. All in one package this guy’s a walking encyclopedia of literary fact, a classic procrastinator, and a dysfunctional male.

He’s also a charming intellectual, poking around in the past, pondering literary theory, talking to himself (and us). Hey, reader, the author suggests, isn’t the mind “an enchanting thing?” (See Marianne Moore). Maybe its meanderings aren’t just a survival mechanism but a sustaining source of richness we overlook. Why on earth would anyone spend time delving into military history facts, baseball statistics, or, god forbid, poetry lore? No reason at all and every reason imaginable.

The Anthologist in a small way is also a fun refresher course about prosody, something like Stephen Frey’s “The Ode Less Traveled.” You can find yourself instructed as well as entertained in these pages. All in all as a novel this is a fine scoop of gelato.

Richard Swanson lives in Madison, Wisconsin where he reads, gardens, and writes. His previous volume was Men in the Nude in Socks (Fireweed, 2006). His latest book is Not Quite Eden (Fireweed Press).