Little Public Library

Little public library Granta 63

The little public library rage has hit Amsterdam. There is one on my way to yoga, another en route to the masseuse, and a third little public library I pass while grocery shopping. I always stop to see what’s on offer. Sometimes I get lucky and I find an edition of Granta, itself a sort of little public library all on its own.

Recently, I came upon Issue no. 63, published in the autumn of 1998. Beasts is, in many ways, a time capsule. Of an age when Martin Amis was still in ascendance and before Hilary Mantel met Thomas Cromwell. It’s fun to read such famous names when they were bright young things. In memory of Hilary Mantel, who died in September, here is a quote from her short story in Beasts.

In those days we were all cousins and aunts and great-aunts who lived in rows of houses. We went in and out of each others’ doors the whole time. My mother said that in the civilized world people would knock, but though she made this observation over and over, people just gave her a glassy-eyed stare and went on the way they always had. There was a great disjunction between the effect she thought she had on the world, and the effect she actually achieved. I only thought this later. When I was seven, I thought she was Sun and Moon.

Hilary Mantel, “Destroyed” in Beasts: Granta No. 63 (Autumn 1989)


Animals stand central in the collection of works in Beasts. Some are pets like the star of Paul Auster’s contribution. This is a street mongrel wise to the ways of the world in general and the fate of his hobo master, Willy G. Christmas, in particular.

Mr Bones knew that Willy wasn’t long for this world. The cough had been inside him for over six months, and by now there wasn’t a chance in hell that he would ever get rid of it.

Paul Auster, “Mr Bones”

Delightfully, the documentary maker Sam Toporoff allows an animal to narrate his story. This animal loves to sneak through the Ladies Room of the El Capitan movie theater to find a big cockroach or a small mouse to nibble on during the double feature.

I’m nocturnal. I love the moonlight, the shadows, the dark places, the dappled murk. I’m not being poetic. I’m simply being true to by nature, my nocturnal nature. Like all tarantulas.

Sam Toporoff, “Tarantula”


A good little public library offers a variety of choice. Outdated reference books, trashy beach novels, discarded comic books, and the occasional gem. I have purchased only three Granta issues, all focused on writing from a specific country: Australia, Ireland, and Great Britain. The rest have come from a local little public library. Who knew that Amsterdammers were such fans?

Like a good little public library, Granta offers a variety of fiction, nonfiction, and one photo essay per issue. That is, in any event, the pattern of my odd collection. Issue no. 63 extends farther than the animal kingdom to embrace themes of death, crime, punishment, and the new world.

It’s a lovely surprise for me to learn that Deborah Levy also writes nonfiction. Like the Mantel story, Levy’s is narrated by a woman looking back at a time when she understood almost nothing of the world around her.

Deborah is three years old, paddling in the polluted warm ocean on Durban’s main beach. These are the days when beaches and toilets and park benches are for Whites Only.

Deborah Levy, “My Frozen Father”

John Barth, to my shame, is another discovery. I have never read any of his works yet even I know that Barth is a “writer’s writer” and thus intimidating to me. George Packer is the main character in Barth’s story. He is an arithmomaniac. George would call Mantel’s date of death in the European notation, 22/9/22, a palindrome. His story begins and ends with its own palindrome.

For our George⏤who just two hours ago (at a few minutes past nine p.m. on Sunday 7 September 1997, to be more if not quite most exact) was prepared to end his life, but has not done s0, yet

John Barth, “9999”

The way we were

Martin Amis’ contribution — “The Coincidence of the Arts” — does not age well. Sir Rodney Peel is an English baronet, occasional portraitist of the wives of wealthy industrialists, and all-round layabout. Normally accustomed to bedding said wives, Peel finds true love in the form of a large, silent “bleck” woman. Predictably, this woman has “volcanic breasts [and] zebra-ripping teeth.” The overt racism might have been meant or understood in 1998 as tongue-in-cheek. It is simply grating in 2022.

In the letters to the editor, readers complain mightily about a photo-essay that appeared in Issue No. 61. The essay pairs photographs of the Christopher Street Wharf as used for recreation by New Yorkers. One of those photos depicts public, homosexual sex, something anyone strolling down the wharf could have seen in 1998. In his defense, editor Ian Jack offers this:

the two pictures placed together made me think about how we behaved in public then and now, and about how we took pictures and of what, then and now.

Ian Jack, Editor’s Note in response to Sex on the Pier

Reason enough to pick up an old copy of Granta from your nearest little public library to think about the way we were.

26 Sept 2022 | Karen Kao