Book lover's delight
I must say that to start with I found Ali Smith's Public library and other stories an extremely odd book. A lot of this, I think, was down to the publisher's blurb -
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.
And yes, some of the short stories were indeed about this, but some seemed to have no connection at all, and this completely threw me. However, once I accepted that perhaps this collection of short stories was not what I had expected, I sank into it, as you would into a comfy sofa in a favourite old fashioned book shop (or perhaps even a public library), and I loved it.
The book opens with a personal reminiscence. Ali Smith was in London with her editor. Wandering near Covent Garden, they came across what appeared to be a library but turned out to be a private members' club. Ostensibly a library, it was in fact an other place, specialising in fine dining and drinks. Lots of book-cases, but little in the way of books. This fitted perfectly into the structure of Ali Smith's book - 12 short stories interspersed with thoughts by authors and librarians on the importance of public libraries, and their current state in the UK.
As far as the interviews were concerned, many I found unbearably sad. There was so much I recognised myself - the joy of going to a library as a child (I think I've held a library card since I was 10 years old), the kindness of librarians (even if some of them were seriously scary) in letting me borrow "adult" books (Baroness Orczy, Agatha Christie, Dennis Wheatley) once I'd read my way through most of the children's section. The sadness as more libraries close down.
Some of the interviews just made me plain angry - how can you close down a library that was opened with so much hope and enthusiasm by Mark Twain only just over a century ago? And what about the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, which states that local councils are under a legal obligation to provide library services, and yet over 10% of libraries in the UK are threatened with closure. Those that will be worst hit by closures are amongst the most vulnerable in our society.
Interspersed with the interviews are a range of stories. Initially I found these very confusing too. Some are autobiographical, some appear to be autobiographical, but probably aren't, and some are clearly fictional. Perhaps my brain has problems dealing with the borderlands between truth and fiction, but the stories that I thought worked the best, were those that were clearly one or the other. I loved the story of the divorced couple torn asunder, and then reunited at least mentally, by Katherine Mansfield, the weird history of D.H. Lawrence's ashes juxtaposed with a surprisingly comic take on credit card fraud, and The definite article - a beautiful tale of being seduced by the beauty and literary history of Regent's Park (I'm so glad that it's not just me who always sees dalmatians there).
The stories that I enjoyed most were those with literary connections. From being unsure of the book at the start, as it progressed I fell whole-heartedly in love with it. A wonderful set of short stories, a wonderful introduction to the world of Ali Smith, and a glowing paean to the joy and importance of public libraries - long may they prosper!