Nicholson Baker's "The Anthologist" (Simon & Schuster) is a quietly engaging, mysteriously irresistible novel. Not much happens, yet the voice of the first person narrator, Paul Crowder, holds the reader's interest.
Crowder, a New England poet who's a contemporary version of Robert Frost, is seeking to complete an anthology of poems that rhyme. He's a traditionalist who believes that poetry wandered astray in the early 20th century with the advent of free verse and non-rhyming poems. Crowder is a widely published poet who himself has succumbed to free verse.
With his live-in girlfriend moving out in exasperation over his inability to finish an introduction to his anthology, Crowder goes into a crisis of confidence. Much of the book is made up of his ruminations on the history of poetic technique, the contemporary poetry scene, and the natural world surrounding his New Hampshire farm. He's also a handyman, able to do carpentry and other crafts. An amusing character, his alter ego and gentle nemesis, is a mouse who lives in his kitchen.
The book's plot is how he overcomes his writer's block, makes a trip to Switzerland for a poetry conference, and returns home to finish his introduction and win back his lover. As I said, nothing much happens, yet Baker cleverly kept me reading to the end.
Not only does the book contain a primer on poetry for those seeking to understand traditional techniques like meter. By setting a number of poems to music, and showing the musical notation, the book also gives a nice education on music theory. After reading it, I have a much better understanding of time in music, of the relationship between quarter notes, eighth notes and 16th notes.
With all of that technical material, the book remains easy to read. "The Anthologist" is the perfect book for those seeking a light, yet challenging, summer reading experience.