The Door is Ajar: Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith.

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Public Library and Other Stories – Ali Smith (2015 Penguin Canada)

Smith’s collection of short stories was gathered together to celebrate the role of public libraries in personal and public life, of the value they bring to community, and the wealth of knowledge and the opportunity for engagement, thought, and creativity that they invoke.  Public Library is also a protest against the closure of libraries in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world, the quashing of budgets, collections, and services in libraries that remain, and the overall decline of government and popular support for these previously-revered institutions.  Smith’s stories are framed by quotes from writers, thinkers, and other figures as they explore their personal emotions and connections to libraries, books, reading, and writing.

The stories themselves were a delight for me and I devoured them in a couple of very short sittings. I am not familiar with Smith’s other work and I loved her style and juicy depth of language as she wound her way around several accounts of relationships gone sour, reimaginings of history, and family life.  It’s difficult to pick a favourite out of this collection, but “The Ex-Wife” and “The Poet” are special standouts for me.  Highly recommended.

Dictionaries and potential literature.

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On my other blog The Door is Ajar, I recently reviewed a book by Joe Fiorito, Rust is a Form of Fire (you can read my post in its entirety here).  In his introduction to the book, Fiorito acknowledges the influence of George Perec and his book An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1974), as well as a literary movement Perec was a part of: Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (usually known as OuLiPo).  OuLiPo – which I had never heard of until reading Fiorito’s book – encouraged writers to see “potential literature” everywhere, and used what I’d consider restrictive writing exercises to create new, bold works (sometimes out of old ones).

Consider N+7.  This was a way to alter existing text by replacing every noun (N) in a work with whatever noun followed the original seven (7) entries later in the dictionary.  Another procrastination tool or super good fun?  Maybe both!  I don’t believe in writer’s block, but if you do (and you’re suffering from it), this might be the way to get the words flowing again….

At any rate, mulling over the possibilities of N+7 got me thinking about dictionaries, mostly about how no one really seems to have a print copy of them anymore.  If you need to look up the definition and usage of a word, you just plug it into whatever word processing software or search engine you regularly use and in a microsecond, you have it right there in your face. You don’t even really need to know how to spell the word – there are so many ways to retrieve it even if you come up with merely a close approximation.

We have print dictionaries at the library, but they are circulating less and less, and the beautiful hefty reference copies are rarely taken from the shelf.  I love print dictionaries and have a few at home; although a search engine is way more efficient, sometimes it’s just plain pleasant to turn the pages of the print copies and pore through the entries.

So, with dictionary in hand, here is an excerpt from my book review of Fiorito’s Rust is a Form of Fire – the original is first, followed by the N+7 version.  Please note that I am using N+7 without taking into account proper nouns and pronouns.

Over the course of three days, he spent several hours sitting near the intersection of Victoria and Queen in the bustling metropolis, and recorded all of his observations of the scenes around him:  snippets of conversations, what people were wearing, what they were drinking or eating, what the temperature was, interesting features about buildings around him…you name it.

Over the court card of three daydreams, he spent several house arrests sitting near the intertrigo of Victoria and Queen in the bustling mew, and recorded all of his obstacles of the scent-bags around him: snoods of conversions, what pepperboxes were wearing, what they were drinking or eating, what the temple was, interesting federations about bulbuls around him…you name it.

Potential literature?  Perhaps –  I did learn a few new words in the process!  And I must apologize for my juvenile sense of humour, but the “obstacles of the scent-bags” makes me giggle. Might be the title of my next short story….

Do you still use a print dictionary?  

Do you use writing exercises to inspire new work?

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