Ali Smith’s fabulous new collection of short stories revolves around the theme of books, and why they ‘mean the world to us’. The tales which can be found within Public Library and Other Stories are ‘about what we do with books and what they do 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’.
The power of stories, then, is what Smith focuses upon here; or, at a more basic level, the power of the written word itself. Public Library and Other Stories consists of twelve tales in all, which have been bookended with twelve insightful pieces of commentary, the majority of which muse upon the importance of the library. Segments range from thoughts about a ‘Library’ in Covent Garden, which resembles a ‘fancy shop’ and turns out to be a private members’ club, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s use of a library card as a weapon, to the way in which ‘libraries have always been a part of any civilisation, [and as such] they are not negotiable. They are part of our inheritance’.
Smith has also borrowed the stories of friends regarding their stance on the public library. Her partner, Sarah Wood, responded with the following: ‘I can’t tell you what the opening of that library was like where we lived – it was an event… The brand new building brought with it the idea that our local history was important – that books were important, but also that we were too, and that where we lived was, that it had a heritage and a future that mattered’.
The figures whom we encounter whilst reading Smith’s newest work are both imagined and real, and sometimes a clever blend of the two, from poet Olive Fraser, to the ashes of controversial author D.H. Lawrence. There are stories in the collection about linguistics, about companionship, and about bookish criminality: ‘So she’d taken the book and she’d thrown it across the room and when it hit the wall and then fell to the floor with its pages open it nearly broke, which was one of the worst things you could do, maybe a worse thing even than saying a blasphemous curse, no, than saying a blasphemous curse in a church, or near a church, to break a book’.
As I invariably find with Smith’s work, beautiful and profound phrases are woven throughout, and often have the power to make the reader stop and think. The central theme within Public Library and Other Stories has allowed Smith a lot of creativity, whilst still allowing her to produce a thematic and connected collection. Her commentary which has been threaded between the stories strengthens the whole, and ties it together in a thoughtful and measured manner. To borrow a phrase of Smith’s own making, Public Library and Other Stories is made up of ‘endless stories, all crossing across each other’.
Ali Smith very deservingly – and finally! – won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year with her stunningly creative novel How to be both. There is a reason as to why Smith is at the very to of her profession; she is a wonderfully gifted and distinctive writer, who surprises at turns, and who understands, more than anyone, the importance of the book. Each tale in her newest collection is constructed entirely of strengths. Public Library and Other Stories is just as profound as the aforementioned, and is guaranteed to leave established fans of her work content, as well as bringing new readers to the fore.