(apologies for the blurry photo – it’s from Constable’s website, as I can’t find my camera. I’ll update it when I do!)
I have a bad record with short stories. I adore Angela Carter’s, perhaps more than her novels, but they’re an exception. I generally prefer the way that I can get lost in a novel – being able to inhabit a different world for 300 pages is one of the things that I’ve always loved about reading, and I’ve always felt that, with short stories, I get jerked back to reality just as I’m beginning to feel at home. However, I’ve been trying to broaden my literary horizons recently (no, really), and so have decided to try and branch out from novels now and again.
The Reader has been looking at me from one of the shelves in the shop for months now, begging me to give it a try, and I finally succumbed yesterday. Complied by Ali Smith, the book is a collection of her favourite writing; not only short stories, but poetry, song lyrics, extracts from novels and non-fiction. I suspect that I decided to give it a try because it features some authors whose work I already knew that I liked – Tove Jansson, Angela Carter, e. e. cummings, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf – but the real joy is discovering the writing of authors who I hadn’t previously read.
For example, ‘The House I Live In’ by Maggie O’Farrell is a brilliant and (literally) haunting short story about the restless spirit of a young boy. I read the ending as ambiguous, which added another layer of atmosphere and foreboding to the tale. I’ve read one of Maggie O’Farrell’s novels before and I liked, but didn’t love it; however, I’ll definitely give her others a go after this.
The foreword by Ali Smith is also a joy to read. She has a way with language that can make the most tired sentiment sound fresh, and she does that here with her words about the joys of reading:
“That’s the thing about books. They’re alive on their own terms. Reading is like travelling with an argumentative, unpredictable good friend. It’s an endless open exchange” (p. 2)
I’ve always felt this way about books – from reading Enid Blyton under the covers when I was little, to curling up with a chunky novel and a cup of tea now. Without meaning to sound melodramatic, I’ve never felt alone with a book. Unlike many people I’ve spoken to, I was lucky enough to be able to read when I was suffering from depression, and it was one of the biggest comforts you can imagine.
I’ve gone off-topic somewhat, but what I wanted to say was that, with The Reader, Ali Smith has achieved something special – in addition to being full of wonderful writing, her compilation has reminded me why I love reading, which, as a book reviewer and blogger, is an important thing to remember.