Thumbs up for The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker. Literature.
What I have to say is: YES! It’s a novel by a 21st century American man, told in near-stream-of-consciousness, with only the vaguest of plots, about poetry: all these things make a recipe for a book I don’t want to read. And yet I read the first chapter way back when in the NY Times, and was intrigued; and when my coworker, who was reading this book in downtimes at work, started cracking up and insisting I had to read such-and-such paragraph, which always made me crack up too, I made him promise to let me read it next. The Anthologist is hilarious and wise and you will learn a lot, painlessly, as the narrator teaches us about poetry. It made me – me! – who in spite of repeated attempts throughout my life has never been able to read more than two pages of poetry at a time without suffering brainglaze, giddily dust off my anthologies with anticipation of acquainting myself with these characters Baker has introduced me to. If you like big gooey gobs of delicious words and metaphors to make you want to dance around the room (and chase down anyone you see and read paragraphs to them) then you should read this – no delay!
So I quit. I did it in the second month of the spring semester, on a Thursday. There was a new batch of students around the table. Same overbright classroom, same malevolent chairs. The one good poet had gone off to Taiwan, and I missed her faint perfume of promise. They all handed their week’s work in, and I lifted the pile of fresh poems in the air to feel its weight. It was unusually heavy, because one of the poems was twenty pages long. I knew who it was by. It was called “Pythagoras Unbound,” and it was by an overeager boy who talked a lot about Czeslaw Milosz. I skimmed the first page and I saw the word “endoplasm” and I went cold, like I’d eaten a huge plate of calimari. As the hour was ending, I said, “Folks, just a heads-up. I want you to know that I won’t be able to read some of the poetry that you’ve just given me. I will be writing a ‘U.R.’ on some of your poems. What does U.R. mean? It means ‘Un Read.’ I will want very much to read every word of all your poems, because my duty as your instructor is to read them, but in some cases I will not be able to, because, I’m sorry, I can’t. And so for some of you the grade that I give you will be based from here on entirely on class participation. Or if you’re silent and shy and thoughtful and don’t talk at all in class, that’s all right, I fully respect that, I’ll just grade you on those sudden gleams of thoughtful insight that I detect in your eyes. An alert look in your eyes is probably more predictive of your future success than any poetry you will write any time soon.”
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