In theory, this should be the perfect Nicholson Baker novel, because it combines Baker's great analytical love of literature (like in his criminally underrated memoir U and I) with his rigorously intelligent storytelling (like the sublime The Mezzanine). But The Anthologist, the story of minor poet Paul Chowder and his inability to write an introduction to his upcoming anthology of poetry, instead feels half-baked.
Some of Chowder's procrastinatory babble about poets and poetry shines with Baker's incisive thoughtfulness:
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.
And much of it—especially the bits involving Chowder's ex-girlfriend and cutesy asides about daily life, like his "farty" episodes after eating Caesar salads—is basically a waste of time. On the other hand, The Anthologist contains at least three excellent essays about the use and practice of poetry, and occasionally Baker's newfound humanitarian streak (let's be brutally honest here: The man was a bit of a cold fish until A Box of Matches) sings out in all its glory. Chowder unleashes some excellent meditations on anthologies, too—the concept that a poet doesn't exist until he is anthologized, the idea of an anthology of perfect word choices by poets:
—Sir Walter Raleigh
But these are extravagant embellishments on a maudlin, uninspiring story, which makes this novel a must-read only for die-hard Baker enthusiasts.