three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-The AnthologistNicholson Baker, the award-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction, is best known for Double Fold, The Mezzanine, Room Temperature, Vox, The Fermata, and Human Smoke ( 2.5 of 5 Stars May/June 2008).

The Story: Paul Chowder, a middle-aged, down-on-his-luck poet, is struggling to write the introduction to a new anthology. While he has long since given up writing in rhyme, he prefers writers who do—in fact, the collection giving him so much trouble is called Only Rhyme. As in most Baker novels, small actions and thoughts dominate. Although he can’t quite seem to finish the introduction, Chowder is happy to opine about various poets (rhyming and not—from Tennyson and Longfellow to Merwin and Bishop), the vicissitudes of his love life, and various other minutiae from his particular, frustrated poetic point of view.
Simon & Schuster. 243 pages. $25. ISBN: 9781416572442

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"The happiest felicity in a book full of them is that such a loving and superbly witty homage to poetry—and to life—could have been achieved only through the prose sentences of Nicholson Baker." William H. Pritchard

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Somehow Nicholson Baker has written a novel about poetry that’s actually about poetry—and that is also startlingly perceptive and ardent, both as a work of fiction and as a representation of the kind of thinking that poetry readers do. … We read poems because they have a knack for mattering. And how pleasing it is to be so gently, so poetically reminded of that." David Orr

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The Anthologist is pure pleasure—it takes unbridled joy in the love of poetry. It will send readers back to beloved poems or make them search out new ones." Robert Allen Papinchak

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Enjoy this book’s intensity. Don’t break its spell." Janet Maslin

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"But if you want plot, you should read somebody else. If you want supple, lightly ironized, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny prose from a hapless fictional poet, a gentle satire of books about how to read poetry, and a short, sneaky introduction to poetry that conveys real information despite its fictional disguise, this book will be a delight." Stephen Burt

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In this witty satire of literary culture, [Baker] confers importance on just about whatever pops into his mind by letting his thoughts billow and accumulate. As he natters on about the poor quality of today’s brooms or what he’d do if he had a ponytail (‘which I don’t’), he grows on the reader the way Humbert Humbert or Holden Caulfield does." David Kirby

Times (UK) 0.5 of 5 Stars
"Baker seems to find [Chowder] amusing and instructive; the only irony is inadvertent. … Baker’s book is parasitic on the work of better writers." Tom Deveson

Critical Summary

Baker is an innovator in fiction and nonfictional forms, and now critics say he has done what many of his predecessors have failed to do: write a novel about poetry that is neither boring nor pretentious. Of course, not much actually happens in this book (in fact, its whole existence is due to the introduction left unwritten). But David Orr, who writes the column "On Poetry" for the New York Times Book Review, claims that what would normally be a "dreadful prospect" becomes delightful in Baker’s hands. A notable dissent comes from the London Times, which finds the narrator tedious and unreliable and the book unreadable, and suggests that readers enjoy some actual poems instead.