Best Book of the Year – The Anthologist
1 January 2010
I finished out the year by reading Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist. This is a run-don’t-walk book, I’d say. I bought it in hardcover (from McNally Jackson, where you should buy all your hardcovers, if you live in New York), and I’m so glad I did. All I can think of to say about it is, “I laughed, I cried, it was better than… anything I read this year.”
It also goes down as one of those “books that inspired me to keep going.” Right now, it’s full of post-it notes, i.e. scene and character details for Sebastian & Frederick that came to me as I was reading. A great book will often inspire me in this particular way. It’s not that I read something and then think, “Oh, I should have my character climb a ladder, too.” It’s more labyrinthine than that — an idiosyncratic pathway from details and emotions that are effected by the book I’m reading, to ideas and images that drive what I’m writing. But I am keeping the post-its on specific pages of The Anthologist, to remind me of how those pathways were working.
Among my favorite ruminations by narrator Paul Chowder is this: carpe diem, despite what Robin Williams may have led us all to believe, does not mean “Seize the Day.” Rather, it means something more like, “Pluck the Day.”
What Horace had in mind was that you should gently pull on the day’s stem, as if it were, say, a wildflower or an olive, holding it with all the practiced care of your thumb and the side of your finger, which knows how to not crush easily crushed things — so that the day’s stalk or stem undergoes increasing tension and draws to a thinness, and a tightness, and then snaps softly away at its weakest point, perhaps leaking a little milky sap, and the flower, or the fruit, is released in your hand. Pluck the cranberry or blueberry of the day tenderly free without damaging it, is what Horace meant — pick the day, harvest the day, reap the day, mow the day, forage the day. Don’t freaking grab the day in your fist like a burger at a fairground and take a big chomping bite out of it.