Updated on February 5, 2016
5. ‘Public Library’ by Ali Smith
I’ve read one of Ali Smith’s short stories before (the deliciously messed up ‘The Child’ in Victoria Hislop’s Life), so I was delighted to be given a whole collection of her stories for Christmas. Even better, the book is called Public Library, and it focuses on how writing affects our lives and what a tragedy it would be if we lost our public libraries for good.
The stories aren’t directly about public libraries; instead they focus on broader themes related to reading, writing and community. I loved the first story, ‘Last’, about a woman in a wheelchair stuck on a train at the end of the line. I also thought ‘The Beholder’ was fantastic – I liked how it combined medical reality with (my favourite) magical realism. Between every story is a short essay about public libraries, including quotes from writers and book-lovers about how libraries have shaped and influenced them, and why they should not be closed. There is also a potent reminder that libraries cater to the most vulnerable in our society; Pat Hunter says:
“Because libraries have always been a part of any civilization they are not negotiable. They are part of our inheritance.”
There are several very prominent themes in this collection. First, word origins and sounds feature strongly, as characters play with words and muse about where they came from and the mysterious connections between them. Many of the characters also contemplate the lives of famous poets and writers; Katherine Mansfield and DH Lawrence come up especially often. There is a thread running throughout the collection about characters escaping technology and getting back to nature, turning their backs on modernity and escaping to parks and greenery. Closer to the idea of a public library, most of the stories centre around a character taking a moment out of their busy lives to stop, pause, reflect and simply be.
This is a really interesting collection. I didn’t love all of the stories but there were some real gems in there, and the whole book left me feeling quite inspired a) to keep writing my own stories and b) to visit my local library (which I will soon be able to do as I’m moving into the very centre of Bristol!).
“Public libraries allow us to explore the self or the desired self in many forms & the only way I can express how important public libraries are is to tell you about myself.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.