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The Anthologist

The writer’s block of a poet becomes the excuse for Nicholson Baker’s daft, brilliant, hilarious novel.

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It’s not every writer who can change the way you think, but Nicholson Baker has made a career of making us sit up and take notice of things we often overlook. He forever altered our perception of shoelaces in his first book, “The Mezzanine” (1988), which many have, up to now, regarded as his best. It details a man’s thoughts as he rides an escalator after buying shoelaces on his lunch hour.

More recently, Baker sounded the alarm on our culture’s disappearing archives of old books and newspapers in his 2001 National Book Critics Circle-award winner, “Double Fold.”

Baker alienated some readers with the unpleasant obsessives who populated his novels “The Fermata” (1994) and “Checkpoint (2004)”; and with his last book, “Human Smoke,” an unorthodox, questionable history of World War II. But he deserves to win them back with The Anthologist, his eighth book of fiction (and 12th book overall), which may well change the way you look at poetry – and the way you rank his work.

“The Anthologist” is a corker, a brilliant, hilarious, utterly eccentric paean to rhyme and meter narrated by a poet of minor renown named Paul Chowder who’s grappling with writer’s block as he faces a deadline for an introduction to an anthology of poetry he’s selected called “Only Rhyme.” He’s accident-prone and has credit-card debt and no health insurance (“Death is my health insurance”). Worse, his girlfriend, Roz, has given up on him and moved out of his Portsmouth, N.H., home after eight years. He’s desperate to win her back.

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