A richly inventive new collection of stories from Ali Smith, author of How to be both, winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize and the Costa Novel Award and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
Why are books so very powerful?
What do the books we’ve read over our lives – our own personal libraries – make of us?
What does the unravelling of our tradition of public libraries, so hard-won but now in jeopardy, say about us?
The stories in Ali Smith’s new collection are about what we do with books and what they do with us: how they travel with us; how they shock us, change us, challenge us, banish time while making us older, wiser and ageless all at once; how they remind us to pay attention to the world we make.
Public libraries are places of joy, freedom, community and discovery – and right now they are under threat from funding cuts and widespread closures across the UK and further afield. With this brilliantly inventive collection, Ali Smith joins the campaign to save our public libraries and celebrate their true place in our culture and history.
I was absolutely delighted to get to see Ali Smith at the festival yesterday discussing her book Autumn. Since I have not yet managed to get my hands on a copy I decided that this would give me the chance to review Public Library, which I actually won as part of a Goodreads giveaway, lucky me!
Having only read Ali Smith’s full-length novels before I was a bit unsure what to expect. For me, she is synonymous with an expansive use of words and I worried that maybe it wouldn’t translate as well to a shorter narrative. I needn’t have been too worried though really because I’ve yet to go wrong reading one of her books.
My parents were readers, but we did not have many books in the house, so the library was a gateway to a wider world, a lifeline, an essential resource, a cave of wonder…All children should be so lucky.
The book is structured with both Ali’s stories and then accounts from other people about what libraries mean to them, one after the other. I enjoyed getting to read how other people felt about libraries because it reminded me of how integral they were to my childhood and various other points in my life. I also found that having these real accounts interspersed throughout the book gave enough pause after each story that you could begin the next fresh. Even with the limited amount of short story books that I have read I sometimes find that they can blur into one another, this structure helped to negate that.
The stories had a stream of consciousness feel to them. They flick from one train of thought to the other but in such a way that you don’t always notice until it’s brought back to its original point. Some have elements of the fantastical and some ask questions about the human condition that are very relevant in today’s society. It is a very mixed bag but that just means that there will be something for everyone.
My favourites were:
The art of elsewhere
& And so on.
I love Ali Smith’s use of language, there is almost always words or phrases that I have to look up, usually this would make me hesitant with the author’s future books but I have never been put off by this with any of her books. I think it’s because it feels intrinsic with her style, whereas with other writers it often seems forced. When I first approached one of her novels I found it difficult to follow at points, I had the same feeling with Public Library, but once you get into the rhythm of her work I think it becomes clearer.
What was interesting during her talk about the book Autumn was that a lot of the things she said also applied to this book. She discussed chronologies, in the sense of when you think about the seasons; I’ll use winter as an example; you can attribute things to them like feelings and actions because you can draw on all the previous winters that you have experienced and in a sense know what all your future winters will hold.
I think the same can be said of libraries, it might just be me but from just thinking about it I can picture the smell, the sounds, the lighting, how browsing the books made me feel and the panic of not getting them back on time. If I were to visit a library I had never been to before I know what would be there, and I know it would recreate the same feeling.
Because libraries have always been a part of any civilization they are not negotiable. They are part of our inheritance.
Another thing, that the people talking about libraries certainly flagged up, was commonalities. How we all have a great deal more in common than we think, especially when it comes to the experience of life. This was definitely reflected in those passages as they all mentioned a sense of community within the library and as being an important aspect of their development.
Whilst I would say that in the future I would likely be more drawn to Ali Smith’s novels than short stories, I still enjoyed this book immensely. It is a quirky collection and has certainly got me itching to become more involved with my local library.