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Acquiring Minds Want to Know

Recently I read Nicholson Baker’s new book, The Anthologist. Several poet-friends had recommended it, and I had liked Baker back in the day (the day, being, late high school and the book, being, scandalously, Vox). And I liked this book, though not as much as I wanted to (author represses urge to make comment about phone sex). Mostly I read it and wondered the following:

1. Would any non-poets actually read and enjoy this?
2. Was Nicholson Baker a closet poet? (Because jeez, he knows a lot about poetry.)
3. Had the book wanted to be a short story but been pressured into being a novel by those bullies in the publishing world?

Regarding #3, I came to feel that I would have enjoyed it more as a long short story. The dilemma of the narrator (a “submerging” [as opposed to emerging] poet who can’t for the life of him write the introduction to a collection of metered poetry and thus has driven his girlfriend away, nevermind his career) began to wear on me as it repeated ad nauseum. Write the damn introduction, I wanted to scream at Mr. Paul Chowder. Get on with it, I wanted to scream at Baker. Yet I also could recognize that this–the not-getting-on-with-it–was the point. The writing about not-writing was the heart of the story. Paul, rather than collecting poems, or words for his introduction, anthologizes his own procrastinations.

Maybe my problem is that I don’t have the collecting gene. I’ve always wanted it. I envied my high school boyfriend’s dedication to his high record collection; knowing and seeking out and acquiring that which was rare seemed defining. And my friend Julie Larios is a master collector: her house is a veritable wonder cabinet of old cameras and old photographs of people and their shadows and books books books. And I love the series that the Poetry Foundation did about poets who collect things.

I want to be a collector–I really do–but I don’t seem to have the temperament for it. The closest I’ve come is a dangerous penchant for list poems which, at their worst, are just collections of pretty objects. But at their best list poems are a chant, a hymn, a prayer, a transformative song to repetition and change. They are a reassuring compendium of days. They are a box of assorted chocolates (speaking from the dreaded season of office chocolates) but without the helpful guide. It’s dangerous! It’s risky! Nut allergy? All the better! Eat up.

In the end (spoiler alert!), Baker’s narrator just does it. In a little less than two pages, he does what he hasn’t been doing this whole time. It felt unsatisfying as an ending, but it makes sense. It’s not about the acquisition, it’s about the act of acquisition.

To procrastinate comes from crastin meaning “the morrow, the day after (any feast).” Whatever I’m not doing belongs to tomorrow, in other words. In fact, tomorrow has carefully sought to acquire what whatever I’m putting off like a boy in a basement record shop who is really in his element hunting treasures while today is bored like a girl who is trying to be interested for his sake but who is really just wondering when they can just go make out.