“Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to tell you everything I know.”
—The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
That’s pretty good, right? But it gets even better if you’ll allow me two more sentences: “Well, not everything I know, because a lot of what I know, you know. But everything I know about poetry.”
I like that first sentence, and the two that follow it, because they perfectly capture the distinctive voice of this lovely little book. That distinctive voice belongs to Paul Chowder (well, it technically belongs to Nicholson Baker, but you know what I mean)—sometimes poet, would-be anthologist, and charmingly melancholy narrator.
Paul is having a tough time right now. He’s broke, his career is seriously flagging, his girlfriend has moved out, and he’s supposed to be writing the introduction to a new anthology of rhyming poetry but he just can’t quite seem to get going. So, instead, he writes about inchworms and canoes and mowing the lawn. He writes about his ex and his neighbors and his dog. And, throughout it all, he does write about poetry, just like he promised. It’s just not exactly the kind of writing about poetry that could introduce an anthology.
You’ve probably guessed this already, but not a lot happens in this book. Paul lives his quiet life, fights his quiet battles, feels sorry for himself, thinks about how little he deserves to feel sorry for himself. It’s pretty low-key. But, trust me, Paul’s musings on poetry (not to mention everything else that pops into his mind) will be all you’ll want to read for as long as it takes you to finish The Anthologist. Maybe longer. Once you’ve had a taste of his voice in all its charm and wit and wisdom, anyone else’s takes some serious getting used to.