This spring, there were lofty and gargantuan reading-intentions abroad. Lockdown was the time to finally read War and Peace, or any one of the massive novels that have grabbed literary headlines in recent years. Hilary Mantel’s long-awaited The Mirror and the Light was newly out, promising 912 pages of escape to the sixteenth century. Lucy Ellman’s prize-winning Ducks, Newburyport clocks in with more pages yet fewer sentences. There were a number of stalwarts that stayed the course, some even among our number here. Certainly, one of the few silver linings to this clouded year is that many people have rediscovered the pleasure of reading as they discovered more time to read. But many of us have found, at times, that our pandemic-addled attention spans fare better with smaller morsels. Handily for us, at Birlinn it has been the Year of the Small Book.
As if it were planned, we have a number of small book-gems on our front and backlists. Alexander McCall Smith has always been a master of the short story. In his 44 Scotland Street novels, published daily in the Scotsman, he creates self-contained 1200-word vignettes. You can read them alone, if that’s all the time you have, or you can be drawn into reading twelve chapters of A Promise of Ankles in one go, like a bingewatcher gliding seamlessly from episode to episode of a 20-minute television comedy. Each chapter is a short story.
McCall Smith’s Tiny Tales takes the form to its extreme and logical conclusion. In stories ranging from the short to the minuscule, it proves that a whole story can take place within just a couple of sentences, or a page or two. In a meeting in a lift (a compressed setting for sure), the human heart may be exposed and romance, ambition or kindness may blossom in a powerful way. As well as containing conventional short stories (including those of Ron, the first Australian Pope), Tiny Tales offers graphic short stories, too. These are a collaboration between McCall Smith and his long-time illustrator, Iain McIntosh. Here is just one of their Tiny Tales:
Denzil Meyrick, whose DCI Daley novels twist and turn around often gruesome murders, has turned his pen to something altogether shorter and sweeter in A Large Measure of Snow. This short novel, a ‘Tale from Kinloch’, is all the trademark warmth and humour of his crime novels distilled into a winter’s tale of sea-faring hijinks. It has you chuckling and shivering in equal measure. It’s 1967, so what do the regulars at the County Hotel bar make of the Beatles? Snow falls (and snow on snow) in Kintyre and out in the Firth of Clyde. The reviews have been cracking. It’s atmospheric, feel-good reading and, at 150 pages, it’s the perfect fireside read for a dreich winter afternoon or an evening at home. It’s bonny too, in small, glimmering hardback that makes it an excellent stocking filler.
Muriel Spark, whose complete novels we published to mark her centenary in 2018, wrote short novels. So short, in fact, that production nearly hit a continuity problem: would the very slenderest, coming in at under 100 pages, be too slim to accommodate the headband (the striped ribbon trim inside the top of a book’s spine) that adorned the other volumes in the collection? The answer was yes, just. While the diminutive dimensions of The Girls of Slender Means offer puns aplenty, it’s not actually Spark’s shortest novel. The Driver’s Seat and Not to Disturb came in at just 88pp in our edition. Still, it was a signed first edition of The Girls of Slender Means that Nicola Sturgeon named as one of her most treasured possessions last week.
New editions offer the opportunity for playfulness and creativity in format. Malachy Tallack’s The Un-Discovered Islands, has metamorphosed from a large-format hardback into a handy pocket-format paperback, made to look more like a travel guide. But there’s a catch: this book is a guide to a journey you can only take in your imagination. It tells the stories of erroneous islands that were misidentified or hallucinated into existence and subsequently debunked. While Katie Scott’s original illustrations drew the reader into an expansive and wondrous voyage of the imagination, the new edition takes a cartographic approach. This is now an atlas of the myths and mysteries, phantoms and fakes discovered and assembled by Tallack. Small and self-contained, like the islands themselves, it feels good in your hands and suggests itself as the perfect travelling companion to places that only now exist in memory and the imagination.
We offer other Pocket Guides to non-existent realms: to the worlds of whisky, wine, and beer. For those who like to keep their feet firmly on the ground, there are also small guides to Scottish Flowers, and a whole category of official and unofficial guides to various parts of Scotland. Small but mighty, packed with fascinating and useful information, just how we like it.