I seem to go through phases of feeling exhausted by reading, of wanting to read too much and too widely (though not deeply enough), and feeling pressured by the weight of it all. Most recently I was heading for a work trip to Denmark which was kind of stressing me out, and I knew I wouldn’t read much whilst I was away and I needed some light relief. So when this reservation at my library came up it felt like a lucky coincidence. Because what could be better than reading Ali Smith’s homage to the public library than taking it out from a public library to read it?
The last book I’d tried to read, unsuccessfully whilst working away, was Pale Fire by Nabokov and it will be notable to you all that there is no review of Pale Fire. It wasn’t a read that went successfully (or finished. Maybe another time). I opened Public Library with trepidation. For a start, it’s short stories. I have a weird fear of short stories. I truly believe that I don’t like the short story. This is despite not just admiring but loving: The Summer Book, Travelling Light, Mr. Palomar, Palm of the Hand Stories, The Foxes Come at Night, Mr Fox, Self Help, The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, What I Talk About When I Talk About Love, The Bloody Chamber, Black Venus, Delta of Venus, Little Birds, and so on and so forth. Actually I like an awful lot of short stories.
Trepidation then. Because it’s really important to me that I like the book. I open it up and read the pithy little introduction, a little story about finding a place called Library (but Library crossed through) which was once a library but is now a private members’ club. And then a story that starts with all the clichés about the end of the line, end of tethers, rock bottoms and bare cupboards and all of that and I feel a little rush of warmth in my eyes because I feel like I’ve come home. Ali Smith is familiar territory. Familiar territory because I love her writing so much, because she has a distinctive style which is deceptively simple and always quietly charming. The story morphs into a story about a woman trapped on a train and then into an examination of language, which is what Smith does the best. Like here, as she muses on the meaning of the word ‘fine’:
“And why anyway, did the word fine mean a payment for doing something illegal at the same time as it meant everything from okay to really grand? And was it all connected that the word grand could also mean a thousand pounds? Did that mean that notions of fineness and grandness, in their travelling etymologies, were often tied up with notions of money? I hadn’t a clue. But I had an urge to look them up in a dictionary and see. It was the first urge to do such a think I’d had in quite a while.”
Ah, yes! This makes me incredibly happy.
The book consists of several stories interspersed with observations about the importance and value of public libraries. The book was written at a time when many public libraries were being closed, thanks to the age of austerity. I have waxed lyrical about the value of libraries before. Libraries are a lifeline, they are the best our society has to offer (aside from free at point of service healthcare, which is literally a lifeline) because they exist solely to give – to give knowledge, to give access, to give a quiet space to be, to give books and music and DVDs, to give hope, to give support. They are places of endless giving and encouragement. They are places which gain nothing from their service – they make no profit, expect no thanks – but which give to the people around them, to the whole of society, the gift of opportunity. Removing a library from a community feels like a crime, because it involves the withdrawal of hope and opportunity. Where else can a person learn, for free, about other worlds? This comment by Smith is particularly resonant with me:
“Just in the few weeks that I’ve been ordering and re-editing these twelve stories for this book, twenty-eight libraries across the UK have come under this same threat. That makes forty-three – in a matter of weeks.”
As my local authority, Lancashire County Council, have recently proposed the closure of 21 libraries in Lancashire thanks to funding cuts. I don’t envy any council trying to make ends meet with limited resources, but withdrawal of those libraries could eternally damage those affected communities, removing their access to learning, the internet, condemning people to a disconnected world. It’s that important, people.
The little anecdotes, the homages to libraries are the best part of the book in my opinion, though it is always a pleasure reading Smith’s writing. The stories all centre around writers, or language or poetry or recovering a sense of self, or research or the relentless quest for knowledge. They are quirky and somehow familiar, as Smith turns her keen eye on our social awkwardness, like here in a story of a man who dies twice but only in the reported media:
“I fill in the little reply box. At least I’m more alive than you are, I write. At least I can spell dodo properly, something you’re clearly too braindead to do.
I sign my name. I thwack the send icon. I immediately feel better. Then I feel much worse and wish I hadn’t sent anything to anyone. It is somehow a defeat to have engaged at all.”
Haven’t we all experienced that?
The stories in Public Library are charming and easy to read, they are fun and sweet and clever. Yet somehow this doesn’t feel like Smith’s best work. Despite this small reservation it is still a good read, comforting and easy. Unlike most of my recent reading experiences, Public Library was a genuine pleasure to read.
Public Library and other stories is published by Penguin Books