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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Anthologist

Nicholson Baker

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To purchase The Anthologist

Title: The Anthologist
Author: Nicholson Baker
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009
Length: 243 pages
Availability: The Anthologist - US
The Anthologist - UK
The Anthologist - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : has some quirky appeal, but a very mixed bag

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A+ 15/8/2009 Simon Schama
The Guardian . 14/8/2009 Andrew Motion
The Independent . 11/9/2009 Michael Schmidt
The National . 27/8/2009 Geoff Dyer
New Statesman . 10/9/2009 Tristan Quinn
The NY Times . 10/9/2009 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. A 6/9/2009 David Orr
The New Yorker . 21/9/2009 .
San Francisco Chronicle . 13/9/2009 Stephen Burt
Scotland on Sunday A 16/8/2009 Peggy Hughes
The Scotsman . 15/8/2009 Allan Massie
The Spectator . 26/8/2009 James Walton
Sunday Times F 23/8/2009 Tom Deveson
The Telegraph . 28/9/2009 Tom Payne
The Times A 15/8/2009 John Sutherland
TLS . 21/8/2009 Stephen Abell
The Washington Post . 1/9/2009 David Kirby

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, but several very enthusiastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)fter 200 toe-tappingly fantastic pages in what is Bakerís best novel to date, the rhyming gets infectious. (...) None of which may sound like a great afternoon at the beach, summer readers. But believe me, it is; none better. Youíll laugh, youíll howl, you might even recite." - Simon Schama, Financial Times

  • "The Anthologist is so absolutely in character it's difficult not to catch a whiff of self-parody. (...) Part dotty and part devoted, the narrative voice does occasionally compel us to pay attention to the world, creating a mood of sad attentiveness which is its own reward. Furthermore, readers with no special interest in poetry will learn some sensible basic things about form." - Andrew Motion, The Guardian

  • "The ineffectual protagonist is a beguiling misfit, advancing at tangents, a pair of ragged claws. The novel misfires when this voice is overridden by that of the author who makes Chowder into his own spokesman, giving him opinions on Larkin, Marinetti or Pound, either at odds with the character or outside the parameters of the novel." - Michael Schmidt, The Independent

  • "Reading The Anthologist is like driving on a congested freeway: you lurch frustratingly forward a few feet -- a few sentences -- at a time. Occasionally the way ahead clears and you think, "Great, now weíre really going to get moving", which only makes the next stop-start interlude more frustrating. (...) At over 200 pages The Anthologist does not quite conform to Chowderís dismissive view of most long poems, "a few green stalks of asparagus amid the roughage". There is actually a fair amount of very tasty asparagus -- but thereís a whole lot of roughage too." - Geoff Dyer, The National

  • "Nicholson Baker's deliciously offbeat comic story does for poetry what Nick Hornby's High Fidelity did for pop music: both illuminate the enriching nature of art through the obsessions that animate and console men down on their luck." - Tristan Quinn, New Statesman

  • "Mr. Baker has written The Anthologist (a mild-mannered effort that could not be less like his previous book, Human Smoke) as if it were a rambling Paul Chowder monologue, a long chat emanating from the sock level of the poetry world. He slips effortlessly into the eager, friendless voice of a man who is every bit as glamorous and dynamic as his name suggests. But Paul turns out to be oddly likable, thanks not only to his funny, self-deprecating thoughts but also to his chronic struggle with language." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "Yet somehow Nicholson Baker has written a novel about poetry thatís 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. (...) Chowder is possibly the most appealing narrator Baker has invented. (...) There are, of course, objections to be made. Baker is a beautiful writer, and a bracing reader of poetry, but his depiction of the American poetry ecosystem itself is often a little odd, and perhaps has more to do with the experience of Nicholson Baker than of Paul Chowder. (...) As reservations go, however, these are vanishingly minor, especially set beside the tremendous success that Baker manages." - David Orr, The New York Times Book Review

  • "While Paulís peregrinations, which recall Bakerís U and I but with poetry on the pedestal instead of Updike, are a textbook case of avoidance, they are also an earnest exploration of poetic rhythm and what it has to do with baby talk, music, crossword puzzles -- and his longing for Roz." - The New Yorker

  • "The last 30 pages do change Chowder's life, in mildly happy, and mildly implausible, ways, as if to appease readers who believe novels need plots. 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, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "This book is indeed a frame -- a beautifully constructed frame that makes art of a few difficult months of one man's life. (...) The whole book is multisensory, lavishly onomatopoeic as well as olfactory (.....) The Anthologist purports to be a novel but reads more like a monologue; it has some aspects of the diary and the memoir, but also the riches we'd expect of a critical book." - Peggy Hughes, Scotland on Sunday

  • "It is all quite agreeable, but not very compelling. There is a narrative line, but it is so faint that you often lose sight of it. It's pleasant to read a few pages, but you think you could read them in any order, and it wouldn't matter much." - Allan Massie, The Scotsman

  • "As the material for a novel, this might all sound a bit whimsical -- but itís far too heartfelt to be that. More importantly, while thereís no denying that one reason for reading The Anthologist is to find out lots of interesting stuff about poetry, it does remain a novel. As obsessives go, Paul proves surprisingly good company -- but this is partly because, in Bakerís cunning hands, he canít prevent his non-reading life from leaking out round the sides in ways that are simultaneously funny and painful." - James Walton, The Spectator

  • "Paul Chowder, who narrates Nicholson Bakerís new novel, is supposed to be a grown man but is painfully reminiscent of Nory, the nine-year-old heroine of an earlier book. From the first paragraph, heís ingratiating and cutesy, ≠nudging us with facetious asides, witless irrelevancies, saccharine confidences, simplistic generalisations and forgettable chitchat. (...) Bakerís book is parasitic on the work of better writers. It makes more sense to abandon it and go off in search of the poems that exist outside it." - Tom Deveson, Sunday Times

  • "The book is experimental because the stuff that isnít about the introduction and the girlfriend is just as exciting. You might have to be especially interested in music and prosody to find it all that exciting, but if you are, you will." - Tom Payne, The Telegraph

  • "Baker has created in The Anthologist a poetry workshop in fictional form. Itís instructive, quirky, and highly entertaining. Its main point is that literature needs the second-raters as the measure by which the top-raters can be measured." - John Sutherland, The Times

  • "The novel certainly offers a practical lesson in how poetry can be spoken and heard. (...) His broader thoughts are poised somewhere between half-assed and half-earned, demonstrating the amateur accessibility that Nicholson himself showed in U & I (.....) The novel is a testament to -- indeed an anthology of -- moments when poetry and life touch against each other. (...) His is a rare example of affectionate art, of brilliant writing that manages to collect and display the odds and ends of existence in a way that makes the reader like it and him." - Stephen Abell, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Having forgotten how poetry works, he obsesses on its formal qualities. In true Baker style, pages of analysis ensue, replete with charts and even musical annotations. Readers are likely to think either, "You know, I kind of like this guy" or "What a chowderhead."" - David Kirby, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Anthologist opens:

     Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I'm going to try to tell you everything I know.
       He immediately qualifies that statement -- and given the relatively small size of the book the reader holds in his or her hands one hardly expects it could be all-encompassing, but Chowder does spew about a good deal of information. The novel is somewhere between David Markson's later books and a more conventional novel.
       There is something of a story here. Chowder is a sometime/would-be poet who is trying to write an introduction to his anthology, Only Rhyme. The catalogue copy for the book is already printed:
Paul Chowder's introduction locates rhyming poetry in its historical context and reawakens our sense of the fructifying limitlessness of traditional forms.
       Paul had had a go at teaching poetry at a local college, but gave up on that (though, given his financial straits, he considers trying it again -- not that they'd have him). The woman he lived with for eight years, Roz, walked out on him; he wants her back, and they do remain on relatively friendly terms. He does still have his dog.
       If otherwise quite confused and adrift, Paul does, at least, have a passion: rhyming poetry ! And much of The Anthologist is an argument for the form, complete with examples -- as well as Paul's history of (English) poetry, and where it all went wrong (with Futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti -- "Manic Phil, who marinated the twentieth century in his influence" -- getting a large share of the blame).
       Paul wonders:
Why ? Why do we need things to rhyme so much ?
       Yet despite a wealth of examples and many arguments he doesn't really make a very convincing case. Sure, rhymes are nice, but .....
       Paul admits he's not much of a rhymester himself -- his own limited successes have also tended to be freer verse -- which presumably explains part of his rhyming-obsession.
       Baker does show a decent command of the poetic-literary landscape (and history), littering his text with samples and examples -- all the way up to Ludacris (and acknowledging that it's pop music where rhyming now is most widely and successfully employed). He mentions many of the greats and not so greats, often fairly amusingly -- and sometimes personally, as when he brings up Robert Pinsky:
He's a pretty smooth dude. He used to be the poetry editor of The New Republic. Rejected some things of mine and more power to him.
       And Paul Muldoon -- now poetry editor of The New Yorker -- puts in a cameo appearance.
       There are some nice turns of phrase -- The Wasteland is "a hodge-podge of glummery and borrowed paste" -- and Paul actually shows himself to be a perfectly adequate teacher -- though decidedly of the lecturer sort (as opposed to one who actually reads his students' poetry ...).
       Still, Paul/Baker is all over the place, including arguing that eventually: "everyone will see that the sitcom is the great American art form". He's probably onto something there, and rather than his explications about rhyme and rhythm and meter it may have been more interesting if he had expounded on these ideas further, as when he admits:
     At some point you have to set aside snobbery and what you think is culture and recognize that any random episode of Friends is probably better, more uplifting for the human spirit, than ninety-nine percent of the poetry or drama or fiction or history ever published. Think of that. Of course yes, Tolstoy and of course yes Keats and blah blah and yes indeed of course yes. But we're living in an age that has a tremendous richness of invention. And some of the most inventive people get no recognition at all. They get tons of money but no recognition as artists. Which is probably much healthier for them and better for their art.
       One of the arguments Paul/Baker makes is that a mass of mediocrity is necessary in order to appreciate the truly great -- and part of Paul's story is his acceptance that he is part of that mediocrity (with neither fame nor fortune to show for it).
       Paul is adrift, and so is The Anthologist; that's part of their charm, but also annoying. Baker has always been a man of minutiae, and he does not spare his readers here either -- but Paul's relatively uneventful life is peculiarly at odds with his impassioned desire to convince of the value of rhyming poetry. Baker revels in artifice and here, as much as in any of his books, the work-as-construct is apparent; Paul's mundane life and the small events in it serve only to underline that more. It is, to some extent effective, but ultimately not entirely convincing. The unlikely quick resolution, after a quick trip to Switzerland, also seems a rather forced way to bring about an end to the story.
       A very odd little book and tale.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 August 2009

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The Anthologist: Reviews: Nicholson Baker: Other books by Nicholson Baker under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Nicholson Baker was born in 1957. He attended the Eastman School of Music and Haverford College and has written a number of novels (including Vox (1992) and The Fermata (1994)) and some non-fiction (including the account of his obsession with author John Updike, U and I (1991)).

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