The Anthologist – Nicholson Baker
November 25, 2016 § 2 Comments
First published in the English in 2009
It took me about a month to finish reading this book, despite it not being an extremely chunky book. Given my normal reading speed, I should have been done with it in a week, give or take a few days. But this one took me a month. Why?
First, I did not feel any sense of guilt when I put it on the kitchen table and didn’t touch it for several days. I would then put it into my bag and carry it with me everywhere without actually taking it out of the bag to read. Following that, I would move the book onto my work desk, and still, I could happily look at the cover, and the bookmark peeking at me.
There was no sense of urgency to actually finish the book.
And I loved it.
The Anthologist is about a man, a poet of sorts, if he will allow us that, who’s putting together an anthology of rhyming poems. And like in most, if not all, anthologies, he needs to write an introduction. And he’s stuck.
So instead of writing that introduction, he’s chosen to talk to us. He tells us why it’s so difficult to get started with the introduction-writing, and how much he has already suffered through before starting this conversation. But of course, before he can really dig deep into the real reason behind his procrastination, he tangents off and tells us about the woman that he loves who used to live with him but no longer does because he couldn’t get the introduction written. And you know that it’s not the only tangent he will go off on.
He rambles on about the types of poems there are, and the ridiculous names they’re given. He goes as far as to make up songs for some of the poems he uses as examples to make his point, and that piano-playing young girl in me just wanted to sing and tap along with him. He says poems are like songs, and why shouldn’t they be, and so they should be sung.
Baker has a way of describing things, of talking about certain feelings that make the most benign things seem funny. There’s this one phrase in the book that very adequately described how I felt when I got a toothache and had to withstand a few days of pain before I could go and get my toothache fixed with a root canal procedure. I had some writing work to do at the time.
And I knew that I was going to be fine, but that I might not be able to type for a while, which would give me a reprieve on writing my introduction. A great whimpery happiness passed through me like clear urine.
And there were just too many times when his observations were simply too hilarious.
I looked at the USB cables dangling there, and I laughed pityingly at them, and I thought, Whoever designed the connector of the USB cable was a man who despised the human race, because you can’t tell which way to turn it and you waste minutes of your tiny day, crouched, grunting, trying the half-blocked connector one way and the next.
I don’t know how much it would mean to anyone else to know that I thought this was a very comfortable book. Not comforting, mind you, but comfortable. It was like a plush sofa-chair that had just the right amount of cushion and sturdiness. Sometimes, the ramblings even felt like they were happening inside my head, and it seemed to belong just there.
Reading this book was like sitting alone, having a warm cup of coffee on a cool morning.
On poetry and writing:
If everybody was silent for a year—if we could just stop this endless forward stumbling progress—wouldn’t we all be better people? I think probably so. I think that the lack of poetry, the absence of poetry, the yearning to have something new, would be the best thing that could happen to our art.
It turns out that helping is the main thing. If you feel that you have a use, if you think your writing furthers life or truth in some way, then you keep writing. But if that feeling stops, you have to find something else to do. Or die, I guess.
What does it mean to be a great poet? It means that you wrote one or two great poems. Or great parts of poems. That’s all it means. Don’t try to picture the waste or it will alarm you. […] Out of hundreds or poems two or three are really good. Maybe four or five. Six tops. All the middling poems they write are necessary to form a raised mulch bed or nest for the great poems and to prove to the world that they labored diligently and in good faith for some years at their calling. in other words, they can’t just dash off one or two great poems and thens top. That doesn’t work. Nobody will give them the “great poet” label if they write just two great poems and nothing else. Even if they’re the greatest poems ever. But it’s perfectly okay, in fact it’s typical, if ninety-five percent of the poems they write aren’t great. Because they never are.
In fact the letter may be better than any poem she wrote, though she wrote some good ones. But we wouldn’t be interested in reading the letter unless she’d written the poems. So once again it’s terrible confusing. You need the art in order to love the life.
When I look at the lives of the poets, I understand what’s wrong with me. They were willing to make the sacrifices that I’m not willing to make. They were so tortured, so messed up.
And the difficulty is that sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth because you think that the truth is too personal, or to boring, to tell. Or both. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth because the truth is hard to see, because it exists in a misty, gray non-space between two strongly charged falsehoods that sound true but aren’t.
Isn’t crying a good thing? Why would we want to give pills to people so they don’t weep? When you read a great line in a poem, what’s the first thing you do? You can’t help it. Crying is a good thing.