Artful by Ali Smith

Warning: This book contains “thought in 3-D.”

(Penguin, $26)

Warning: This book contains “thought in 3-D,” said Holly Silva in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Scottish novelist Ali Smith, when asked to deliver a series of lectures at Oxford University last year, chose to defy expectations. She wrote, as asked, about literature, but in “a hypnotic, playful hybrid between essay and fiction.” Reprinted in this new book, the opening lines are spoken by a narrator who’s addressing the memory or ghost of a dead lover from a home library they shared. Every book and writer that the narrator considers thus becomes part of a “riveting story” about loss and the quest to find meaning in that loss. No wonder Smith finished her lecture series speaking to standing-room-only crowds.

“All literature should be taught this way,” said Leah Hager Cohen in The New York Times. Comp lit ought to be “something vital and raw,” and Smith has made it so by rearranging the rules of discussion so that we can feel the way literature throws off sparks in all directions, producing amusement, grief, and “the joy of intermittent revelation.” The narrator soon enough stumbles upon four written lectures about literature that the deceased intended to deliver, and this opens up whole new avenues: As the ghost settles in nearby, Smith weaves into her musings allusions “so copious and catholic” that Dickens and Ovid are soon rubbing elbows with Beyoncé and Michelangelo.

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Artful is sometimes clumsy, said Dwight Garner, also in the Times. Smith packs in “a good deal of clanking exposition” under the guise of satirizing the dead lover’s academic language. But along the way, Artful “injects more pleasure into your head than some books that aren’t clumsy at all.” For lines like this offhand remark—“Calm down; go and do a line of Shakespeare”—I will “keep this book on my shelves forever.” Smith reawakens us to the great bittersweet comedy that enlivens all art, and all communication too: We will keep on laboring to connect with one another—day after day and generation after generation—even though the listener, reader, or viewer will never fully understand.

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