Prediction: Patti Smith will keep writing books, and everybody will keep reading them. Clarification: I will keep reading them, but a lot of vultures who dropped off after feeding time (see Just Kids and M Train) will not find a reason to come back if Smith continues to enjoy the use of present tense verbs the way she does in A Book of Days.
Like Year of the Monkey, which covered her life daily throughout 2016, A Book of Days covers her life daily during the pandemic. The difference is that Year of the Monkey directly offers up memoir while A Book of Days is more meditative. A Book of Days is not a starting point for getting one’s arms around the artwork, legacy, or history of Smith, and not because she assumes the reader knows these things already. She may just be finished talking about them.
Instead, A Book of Days delivers a photograph for every day of the year (plus Leap Day—a very pointed inclusion that speaks to her character). Each date has a caption, but don’t confuse this book with her Instagram posts. The entries are not entirely culled from her social media presence, plus the prose takes a very different form, running across the page rather than in broken lines as poems the way she does them for the internet.
About 60 of the photos included were not taken by Smith, and at least half are in black and white. She’s done many exhibitions of her photography in recent years, meaning that not only has she honed her eye in taking pictures but can also find the threads between them and provide an interesting sequence. Across all these dates, there are never more than three entries in a sequence, but usually not more than two. It’s possible to read each daily entry for an entire year, as nearly all of them are self-contained with no necessary reference point in the previous day’s entry. This allows deeper absorption and reflection than reading A Book of Days straight through, which could easily be done in a single afternoon.
The whole book is exactly what you’d expect on a Patti Smith mood board. Most of the dates concern birthdays, ancestral artifacts, and grave sites. She has an obvious reverence for everyday objects that function as a creative’s tool set. We see poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s hat and Fred “Sonic” Smith’s guitar; items, she says, never used again after their masters laid them down for the last time. Many of the photos involve her various eyeglasses and writing implements, half-finished manuscripts, and half-finished cups of coffee.
There are also a lot of photos of beds that were slept in by the famous people Smith admires, which is an interesting extension of the audience mentality for this book: we’re trying to ferret out a deeper connectivity to Smith by looking at her mundane objects while she is trying to ferret out a deeper connectivity to her heroes by looking at their mundane objects. It’s an ironic loop of parasocial relationshipping, and so A Book of Days succeeds in generating a kind of intimacy.
In that regard, all I have for you on the gossip front is that she and Fred thought of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner as their “common guides” (234). That they felt the Pollock-Krasner household could serve as a model relationship feels a bit icky to me because I always thought their marriage was well above and beyond that model. I’m sure the vultures would all come back for a tasty portrait of the lost years from 1980 to 1995 when the Smiths hunkered down to be a family. I can even smell the film adaptation from here. I am torn between my wish to see every inch of the life of Patti Smith chronicled in her own words while she is still blessedly very much alive and with us and my fantasy of her never having to do another project where the hook is her attachment to an equally famous man, no matter how much she truly loves and is loved by him.
The photos in A Book of Days are engaged in some low-key version of this hook. For some of the images, their lack of context is infuriating when you want to know more about how Smith was able to access these special objects and people. Maybe she knows these people, or maybe it was a brief chance meeting caught on camera. Maybe these objects are her personal property, or maybe she’s standing in a museum and leaning over the velvet rope. In all cases, the effect is delightfully surreal.
It also gives a wild sense that Smith is everywhere all at once because A Book of Days doesn’t track her literal movements from place to place but instead tracks her manner of thinking about each date. So we leap from nation to nation with every turned page: the US, France, Russia, Switzerland, Mexico, and many more. Smith would make a great museum docent. She is holding up these rare photos of some little corner of history that has personally dwelt inside her heart and mind for a long while, giving us one or two choice romantic details that point to whatever matters most to her about that subject in lieu of any well-rounded or truly informative account.
A typical entry: “19 NOVEMBER: Bruno Schulz, the brilliant Polish writer, was shot in the street by a Gestapo officer on this date in 1942. Much of his writing, including a work called The Messiah, was tragically lost in the war. This is Jim Carroll’s heavily thumbed copy of Schulz’s masterpiece The Street of Crocodiles” (338).
Her literary voice is the same as ever, and as usual, I very much enjoyed her sometimes unintentionally hilarious and swoony descriptions of other celebrity creatives. For example, she refers to the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen as “the Mozart of cloth” (75). I don’t always share Smith’s taste in every creative field, but I’ve consistently found it valuable to make a reading list of all the author names she drops in any given book. In A Book of Days, she’s compiled a list of over 50 suggested readings, which is a thoughtful and highly useful addition to the backmatter. This list is especially strong in Japanese and Russian options, and some things courtesy of Susan Sontag, who advised Smith to check out Austrian literature.
No conclusions are needed here. As I said at the beginning, either you’re the type of person willing to see Patti Smith still tending the fires of peace within her still-evolving self at age 75, or you’re a vulture who swoops in to suck the nostalgic 1970s marrow from her iconic bones. You know which type of person I am. Let me leave you with these two meditations from A Book of Days to finish out the year:
“22 NOVEMBER: On this day our president John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was sixteen and it was the saddest day of my young life. Now I am thankful that I am still here to accept the blessed task of remembrance” (341).
“31 DECEMBER: Happy New Year, everybody! We are alive together” (381).
A Book of Days makes me thankful that Patti Smith and I are alive together, one day at a time.