“What are you reading,” is a central catchphrase in Ali Smith’s Autumn. “What are you reading for?” is another question that could be posed. With social media now sometimes the sharing of recommendations makes reading seem like a competitive sport, when sometimes we simply need a little recreation not our peers’ approval.
The Raincoats once sang: “I don't know the books that you read / But you don't say / That love never externalizes / You're rereading a book / To feel reassured / By the life of your favourite hero” Those lines come from their debut single, ‘Fairytale in the Supermarket’. And funnily enough, Ali’s story, ‘The Child’ in her First Person collection is pretty much a fairy story happening in the supermarket store.
Ali in Artful says: “We do treat books surprisingly lightly in contemporary culture. We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once. Books need time to dawn on us.” She adds: “Great books are adaptable. They renew themselves as we change and re-read them at different times in our lives.”
It will be fun returning to Ali’s books, and reading them at a more leisurely pace, after having gobbled them up far too rapidly. The only thing about re-reading is that there always seem to be so many new (to us) books to command attention. Time seems to be against us, at the best of times. From memory the only book that has ever demanded that it must be re-read again instantly, after the last page had been turned, is Manuel Rivas’ remarkable Books Burn Badly, and the other books of his that have been in the local library, All Is Silence and The Low Voices also very definitely reveal much more on rapid re-readings.
Ali Smith appeared with Mariella Frostrup on a BBC Radio 4 show in 2013, chatting about re-reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, to celebrate the book’s fiftieth anniversary. It is still available to hear online. In it Ali mentions how the book is artless, unexpectedly funny, and she places it as part of a tradition along with Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding.
There was a time when Carson’s books were regularly on the local library’s shelves, and they were very appealing then to this young, enquiring mind. The Member of the Wedding is another book that Ali has written an introduction for. She is quite an introductionist or forewordsmith. Tove Jansson’s A Winter Book is another she has written a foreword for.
Carson appears in passing in the true short story that opens Ali’s First Person collection, which is about her friend Kassia’s illness and how they met at Cambridge when Kassia stood up for Carson’s writing in the face of the male academic establishment’s disdain, another recurring theme which has an echo with Pauline Boty in Autumn.