Let’s start with a confession–I haven’t finished reading all of Ali Smith’s anthology The Book Lover yet. Like most collections I own, there’s a fair chance that I won’t read every story, essay, or poem collected here, but chalk that up to the nature of anthologies. With any compilation, there are always going to be those great, transcendental moments where you’re suddenly hipped to a new voice, a new sound, a new vision, or re-introduced to an old friend you hadn’t thought about in quite some time. There will also be those texts that fail to grab you at the first sentence (or, rather, you fail to put the work in), and those texts that are simply a bit too long for the gap you’re presently trying to fill. So far, The Book Lover has been mostly filled with bits of shining revelation, startling wit, and plain old great writing, and I’m not going to spoil the meal by forcing it all down at once.
In collecting some of her favorite voices, Scottish author Ali Smith displays a keen understanding that the literary omnibus is peculiarly open to discontinuous and scattered readings. She prefaces The Book Lover with a quote from Virginia Woolf: “Any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express, if we are writers; that brings us closer to the novelist’s intentions if we are readers.” Woolf’s words invite us to read the collection in any manner we wish, and I followed suit, picking it up in spare moments, usually at work, where I rarely get the time to concentrate on anything like a novel for a sustained amount of time. Still, Smith has put a great deal of thought into the arrangement of her sources, grouping them into six sections, GIRLS, DIALOGUES, JOURNEYS, THE WORLD, HISTORIES, and BELIEFS. The pieces in the section sometimes speak to each other directly (Hilda Doolittle’s “The Cinema and the Classics: Beauty” followed by Colette on “Mae West” followed by Lee Miller on “Colette”), but more often than not the pieces respond to each other in an oblique, layering fashion. It’s left to the reader to link William Blake’s “Infant Joy” to a section from Anne Frank’s diary, or connect the dots between Tom Leonard’s hilarious poem “baa baa black sheep” and the strange journalism of Lorna Sage’s “Our Lady of the Accident.” These connections were most interesting to me when re-encountering a text I was utterly familiar with, like the “pear tree” passage from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, re-contextualized with something I’d never read, like the selection from Billie Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (note to self: go get Lady Sings the Blues).
Ultimately, The Book Lover is successful in that it doesn’t attempt to be a “greatest hits” collection; instead, we’re treated to a wide selection of diverse and often dazzling writers. Smith’s project will not only introduce you to writers you haven’t yet read, it will make you want to read their works as well. I will, however, admit to being a little bit jealous: I think I’d love to put my own anthology together. After all, I’m a book lover too. In this sense, The Book Lover inspires its readers to think about the value of their own libraries, the way that the authors that they love speak to each other across time and space. Recommended.
The Book Lover is now available in the US from Anchor Books.