- ISBN-13: 9781101973042
- ISBN-10: 1101973048
- Publisher: Anchor Books
- Publish Date: October 2016
- Page Count: 240
- Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.2 x 0.9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 0.45 pounds
Well Read: Under the spell of books
Ali Smith cares about libraries, which is hardly a shocking revelation to hear about an award-winning fiction writer. More specifically, though, Smith is concerned about the fate of public libraries in her native Britain, where, as in parts of the U.S., funding cuts have made the future of these venerable and necessary institutions tenuous. So, in an act of literary activism, Smith has turned her magical new collection of short fiction, Public Library and Other Stories, into a celebration of what she calls the “Democracy of reading, democracy of space: our public library tradition.” Interspersed with her 12 innovative stories are reflections from other writers and readers about the importance of public libraries in their lives, past and present. These create an informal manifesto that supplements Smith’s fictional exploration of the power of literature in our lives.
To call these stories magical is not an empty word choice, because Smith is a narrative magician here, often employing an artful sleight of hand that can suddenly move a story from one idea to the next with the seamlessness of a casual conversation. All are in first person, giving them the immediacy of memoir, even as they may take a strange turn into a less-than-realistic world. One of the best, “The ex-wife,” features a frustrated woman whose marriage disintegrated because of her husband’s obsession with the writer Katherine Mansfield. The specter of Mansfield then becomes her unlikely confidante. In another, “Say I won’t be there,” a dream about the pop singer Dusty Springfield becomes not only a connection to childhood, but a humorous study of the distracted impatience and underlying affection of a committed relationship.
The true nature of the literary games that Smith is playing here may be embodied in the fact that there is no story called “Public Library” in this book, despite the collection’s title. Yet, all the stories are, in one way or another, pointed celebrations of the power of literature in our lives. Writers like Mansfield, Woolf, Kipling and Keats insert themselves into the characters’ daily lives with the ease and familiarity of reality television stars. A story’s narrator might take a tangential detour into a word’s etymology and it all seems perfectly normal, as if each of us carries out our lives immersed in the power of literature, in writing, in words. Smith would suggest that we do. So, in her brilliant, off-kilter world, it seems perfectly normal that a story that starts with an act of credit card fraud would turn into a rumination on the fate of D.H. Lawrence’s cremated remains. It is how our minds work, Smith seems to say. Or, at least the way our minds should work if we are readers, living under literature’s spell even when we are engaged in the mundane.
Smith salts her wisdom with humor, conveying the kind of fierce, subtle wit that makes one pine to have dinner with her, to learn what else resides in her singular brain. Not so different from a library, perhaps—where surprises await on unexplored shelves and in unexpected corners. As Helen Oyeyemi tells Smith, “The public library network definitely strikes me as some sort of live and benevolent organism.” Those same adjectives can be quite easily applied to Smith’s storytelling talents.