The latest First Reads Goodreads giveaway book this pedometer geek read was Ali Smith’s Public Library and Other Stories. She has many other books to her name, but this is the first book of hers that I have read. Because she is a British author, that may be why I was unfamiliar with her body of work, many of which have nominated for various literary awards such as the Orange Prize and the Booker Prize. Her most recent novel, How to be both, was a Man Booker Prize finalist and winner of the Bailey Women’s Prize, the Goldsmith Prize, the Costa Novel Award, and the Saltire Literary Book of the Year Award. Here is the extended review of Public Library and Other Stories.
Public Library and Other Stories
By Ali Smith
Published by Anchor Books, 2016
a division of Penguin Random House LLC
(Originally published in Great Britain
by Hamish Hamilton, a Penguin Random House company, 2015)
As the blurb on the back cover states: “The stories in Ali Smith’s new collection are about what we do with books and what they do to 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.”
“Woven between the stories are conversations with writers and readers reflecting on the essential role that libraries have played in their lives.”
Alternating the author’s thirteen short stories with various people’s perceptions of the power of libraries to change their lives, this collection showcases the essential nature of libraries, especially in a time of funding cuts and closures.
Although most of the libraries mentioned are British, the same is true for libraries everywhere. Libraries provides more than just books. As Sophie Mayer indicated: “…the public library is the ideal model of society, the best possible shared space, a community of consent…where each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings, and knowledge: the book.” (page 75)
The short stories are varied. Some appealed to this reader more than others, but all were literary in nature and worthy of being read. The story of the Traveling Etymologies (about the meanings of certain words and how they came about) called “Last” was a particular favorite; as were “The Ex-Wife,” “The Human Claim,” and “The Beholder.”
Wedged between the short stories were recollections of libraries past and present. Those snippets of conversation about libraries and their effect upon the people who contributed were some of the most compelling aspects of the book. I must admit that I probably gave some of Smith’s stories short shrift to get to these interludes, and I probably need to re-read the stories just to savor her words.
Quotes of note: “I believe that within every library is a door that opens to every other library in time and space: that door is a book.” (page 75)
“…that the important thing about the notion of a public library is that’s it’s the one place you can just turn up to, a free space, a democratic space where anyone can go and be there with other people, and you don’t need money-…And you can just go. It’s somewhere you can just be.” (page 58)
As a voracious reader, I can state that I come from a state known for its libraries (and library usage). It may be due to the fact that the state has a clause in its constitution mandating a percentage of its General Fund to be used to help fund its libraries. Regardless of why the state is known for its libraries, large and small, I have a love for my library, spending a good deal of my time there (both volunteering and perusing the shelves for my next read). I have had held library cards from all of the municipalities in which I have resided over the years. I have possessed at least six different library cards and have used more libraries than I have had cards. I have served on levy committees to help my local library; I am a member of the local Friends organization of the library. To me, libraries are a treasure trove of wealth that cannot be measured. In other words, libraries rock, and I can’t imagine my life without my library. They are essential (and with an upcoming levy on the ballot, this reader, now donning a campaign hat, says, “Vote YES! Support your library!” but I digress).
Overall, the book is a literary smorgasbord of stories about books, words, and literary figures. There is a story for everyone, and its message of the power of libraries resonates through every page.