Ali Smith's Public Library: civic space and intimacy

The 'serious playfulness' of Ali Smith's most recent collection is underpinned by reverence for civic space and the written word. The two come together in the form of public libraries...

Sian Norris
27 November 2015

It’s perhaps apt that I’m reviewing Public Library, Ali Smith’s newest collection of short stories, as it was in a public library that I first discovered her work.

I was 15, and a fortnightly trip to the city centre’s public library had been part of my family’s routine for half my life. It was something we could do together in the evening – something that was free. Our haul of books clutched tight to our chests would keep my brother and I occupied until the next trip.

I remember finding this slim volume of short stories with a smiling woman on the cover. Free Love. I don’t know what attracted me to the book. I think I was looking for some kind of answer about love, free love. What I found was a remarkable set of stories about sexual awakening and the beautiful, impassive faces of golden age movie stars on big screens.

I kept returning to the book, because you can do that with libraries, can’t you? Later on, judging a book prize which Smith’s marvellously genre-bending and category-defying Artful would win, I started reading her novels: The Accidental, Hotel World, There but for the and, most recently, her Bailey Prize-winning How to be both.

Smith’s latest collection opens with an anecdote about her and her editor Simon discovering a ‘library’ in central London. Intrigued by the library that doesn’t look like a library, they go in to discover more. What they find is a private members club; the only books displayed as décor. When it becomes clear they are not planning to join the club, they are coolly excluded.

It’s an interesting moment that synthesizes one of the key themes of the collection – the relationship between public and private space. In Covent Garden’s Library, what was once a public space open to everyone – a democratizing venue where rich, poor, young, old were welcomed with open arms – was now an exclusive club reserved only for those who could afford to pay the subscription fees. The public and free had become the private and pricey.

Stockholm public library photo by Wojtek Gurak.jpg

Stockholm public library. Photo: Wojtek Gurak via Flickr.

Public and private spaces recur throughout the book – from parks and cities to dreams and memories. One story finds us following a bee through Regent’s Park in all its civic glory. As we explore the rose garden and travel the paths to Primrose Hill, Smith traces the park’s medieval history over its modern topography. We are joined by the shades of literary figures who have walked the same paths – the Shelleys sailing paper boats, Elizabeth Barrett finding flowers to send to Robert, Woolf making phrases as she walks out her sadness… The next story finds us back in the realm of the private, the internal, as the narrator shares a recurring dream about Dusty Springfield posing in a graveyard.

Fittingly in a collection titled Public Library, books and the power and trickery of words are a prominent feature throughout. Books offer a kind of communion – they’re a way of sharing and communicating; a tool for expressing feelings and emotions and memories.

The stories themselves are often an act of communion with other writers. One story, Ex Wife, reflects on the breakdown of a relationship caused by one partner’s obsession with the short story writer Katherine Mansfield. After the break up, a petty act of revenge leads the narrator to start reading Mansfield until one day Mansfield’s ghost turns up in the park, talking and quoting and, eventually, fading from the tuberculosis that killed her. The story is superbly beautiful, exploring how one partner in the relationship sought to commune with Mansfield through artefacts, memorabilia and facts, whilst the other finds themself moving from resentment of - to conversation with - the dead writer, all thanks to her words on the page.

Similarly, the collection is full of echoes. In The Human Claim, the narrator ‘Ali Smith’ discovers that her credit card has been defrauded. The nightmarish bureaucracy that she endures leads her to a connection with DH Lawrence, who then turns up again in Ex Wife. The writers walking in Regent’s Park flit in and out of other stories. The ghosts of parents and lovers repeat.

Smith’s characteristic and deadly serious playfulness with the shapes of words and language are all here. Her ability to force the reader to think about the sounds and visuals of words is both so clever and so joyful as it focuses the reader on the importance of language and meaning and how we communicate.

Of course, writing a collection of short stories called Public Library during a full-scale assault on our public services is a political act and one that Smith doesn’t shy away from. In comments and vignettes between each story, she invites friends and fellow writers to share the important role libraries have played in their lives. Over and over, the same themes emerge. Libraries were for everyone. Libraries were democratic spaces. Libraries provided access to books and learning as children – access they might have been denied for any number of reasons, including in one case conflict and dictatorship.

Stories are shared about how libraries opened up the world, offering an escape from inner-city poverty and rural isolation; how libraries inspired a love of books; a love of writing; an interest in philosophy; a new career. Within every testimonial there is a palpable anger that this legacy is being slowly dismantled – most clearly stated in a passage on the legal case for libraries:

The importance of libraries was recognized by the Public Libraries Act 1850 and affirmed by the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. In all the media mention of cuts to services in libraries I heard no reference to these Acts or any other statutory requirement for the provision of libraries nor have they been rescinded.

Reading these testimonials led me to reflect on my own relationship with libraries. As I mentioned above, going to the library was a regular ritual for my family and I. It was in the library that 16-year-old me discovered a book called Paris was a Woman. The book triggered my life-long interest in 1920s women writers living in Paris – an obsession that led me to the book I’m currently writing. Without the library, would I be doing the work I do today? I very much doubt it. Through her moving, surprising and beautiful collection, Smith sends a firm message: we cannot let the legacy of the public library network die on our watch. 

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