The Anthologist — Nicholson Baker

This is a fascinating book about poetry, disguised as a wry and humorous story about a poet with writers’ block. It’s like two books in one!

The protagonist is a likeable everyman. Well not really an everyman — he’s a poet and academic rather than just a regular Joe. But he’s definitely likeable in the way that Nicholson Baker’s characters often are. (I feel that Baker’s protagonists tend to be versions of himself, even though I don’t at all know what he’s like in real life. I presume he is likeable.)

Anyway, he is supposed to be writing an introduction to an anthology of poetry, but instead spends his time doing odd jobs, wistfully trying to get back together with his ex, and procrastinating in various other mundane ways. He also thinks and muses on poetry. Reading those sections is like talking to a smart but down-to-earth friend — just fun anecdotes, opinions and observations, but about poetry and literature rather than football or celebrities. (Or football celebrities.) There are some pretty neat ideas — I am convinced by his argument that so-called “iambic pentameter” (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”) actually has three beats to the line, not five. There’s potentially an academic paper in there, but that would be less compelling than the present book.

He illustrates his thoughts with lots of examples and annottions. There is a great printing glitch in my edition where a lyric from the rapper Ludacris appears to be attributed to T. S. Eliot:

T. S. Eliot? More like MC Eliot. It’s that type of book: even the typos are amusing.

I really enjoyed this book. I was a bit disappointed by the ending, partly because it felt slightly abrupt and a bit too neat, but mainly because I wanted to keep reading more of the same. Well apparently I can: there is a sequel to this book! I discovered Traveling Sprinkler while browsing in the Parnell Public Library. Unfortunately my reading queue was too long at that point so I didn’t borrow the book, but I plan to read it soon. It’s a great library — it’s possibly the smallest public library I have visited, yet their book displays always have books I am interested in. The librarians must be like me, at least as far as reading tastes go. I once told someone I was a radio DJ (which was true) and she said she thought I seemed more like a librarian. I don’t think she was being complimentary, but maybe she was right after all.

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