Friday, December 22, 2006

BOOKS | The Reader by Ali Smith

The Reader
Selection by Ali Smith
Published by Constable & Robinson, 2006

The reading maketh the writer — if we are to believe the adage — so the idea behind The Reader is well-conceived. The Reader is planned as the first in a series of anthologies of personal favourite writings chosen by writers. This means if you like this volume, there's more coming along. (I hope.)

This is the kind of book that will please readers like me — someone a little nosy perhaps, who enjoys checking out other people's libraries, bookshelves or reading lists. If you are guilty of these charges, welcome. You don't have to know anything about Ali Smith or what she has written. Just know that she is a writer (and a very good one, I might add) who is also a passionate reader.

The selection was done in two days, with Ali Smith spreading her books across the floor in her front room. She tries to organise the selections in some larger themes, like "journeys," "dialogues," or "beliefs." But Smith herself admits, "If I was doing it now, or had done it on any other day, it'd be a different book." In all manner of order, there is always a grain of the arbitrary, and the anthology is much better for the idiosyncrasies. What you have is a wide range of writers, some familiar, some not quite so — yet interesting for one reason or another. There is a piece of journalist reportage by photographer Lee Miller, on the most delicious subject — Colette. Smith's selection makes the kind of sense, like our lives ever making sense — very personal, quirky, and occasionally hilarious in a silly, childish fashion. Her inclusion of this little limerick by Stevie Smith makes me laugh everytime I read it: This Englishwoman is so refined/She has no bosom and no behind. I've passed it around at work — and it never fails to entice laughter from the recipient.

This is Ali Smith's tribute to the books that she loved at different points in her life. It is about the books themselves. It isn't supposed to be about Ali Smith, although the books we love, to a certain extent, helped shape us. Perhaps The Reader will send you out looking for the writers she featured. Or maybe it will send you looking out for Ali Smith's books, wondering what kind of a writer reads stuff like these.

Either way, it's a great collection for readers.

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