THOUGHTS ON: Public library and other stories

By Ali Smith

Democracy of reading, democracy of space: our public library tradition, wherever we live in the wide world, was incredibly hard-won for us by the generations before us and ought to be protected, not just for ourselves but in the name of every generation after us.”

public library storiesIn the mid-nineties I acquired a short story collection from Waterstones Chester. Somewhat drab in appearance, on its front cover was a washed-out black and white photograph of the American actress Louise Brooks, lifted from the film adaption of the controversial Diary of a Lost Girl, over which it displayed a single endorsement from the Northern Irish fiction writer, Bernard MacLaverty: “What a great batch of stories”.

It was, however, published by Virago, and I was sufficiently intrigued by its description to purchase a copy. At 149 pages, I was able to read the book in one sitting, finding myself delighted by a memorable debut from an unknown author. ‘Here’s someone who knows their way around short fiction!’ I said to myself.

The book was Free Love and Other Stories by Ali Smith, and it went on to win the Saltire First Book of the Year award and the Scottish Arts Council Book Award. The author has since published a slew of successful, often experimental novels, and several other short story collections – the fifth and most recent of which was the wonderfully inventive Public Library and other stories in 2015. She is now widely considered to be one of our most gifted living writers and I have never failed but to be drawn to her works of fiction.

Born in Inverness in 1962, Smith was the daughter of working-class parents and was raised on a council estate. She gained a top first in Senior Honours English at the University of Aberdeen and won the University’s Bobby Aitken Memorial Prize for poetry in 1984 before attending Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studied for a PhD in American and Irish modernism. She did not complete her doctorate but started writing plays, moving to Edinburgh in 1990 to work as a lecturer of Scottish, English and American literature at the University of Strathclyde. She was compelled to leave in 1992 – suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome – and went on to hold several part-time jobs ranging from lettuce-cleaner to advertising copywriter, before having her first book published in 1995.

The jacket of my Penguin edition of Public library pictures a still from La Chinoise, a 1967 film by Jean-Luc Godard, on the rear is a roll of rhapsodic quotations from critics of note. It contains 12 literature-linked stories interspersed with comments from several of the author’s friends on the subject of libraries: “their history, their importance and the recent spate of closures”.

An exuberant defence of libraries, every one of Smith’s humorous, often scathing stories is outstanding – her superbly written dialogue a spirited interflow of fact and fiction. I read this book slowly, relishing its unpredictable narratives such as those inspired by Robert Herrick’s verse (Grass), the ashes of DH Lawrence (The Human Claim) and an array of literary odds and sods. My personal favourite was The ex-wife, about a woman’s obsession with Katherine Mansfield, which leads to her breaking-up with her boyfriend, but there are naught but gems between these pages.

Public libraries are experiencing closures on an unprecedented scale in the UK and many other parts of the world, and this book makes perceptive observations about the importance of reading in “the best possible shared space”. As a collection, it is powerful, linguistically clever and wonderfully entertaining. Furthermore, it is audaciously Smithsonian to the final full stop*.

* A punctuation mark at the end of a sentence, known in North America as a period.

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22 replies

  1. Our local library is a hub of activity and the local Council have decided to demolish the building, which needs significant repairs, and build a new, bigger library on the same site.

  2. In Australia, libraries are expanding. They are bigger and better and more vibrant places than those of my youth. In Brisbane city alone, there are 22 public libraries and a mobile van. I believe it is false economy to close a library because not all citizens have internet access nor are they computer literate enough to search successfully through the misinformation. A library today is much much more than books!

  3. Sounds intriguing. Our local library just completed a huge expansion. It’s thriving. Sorry to hear of libraries closing.

  4. Ohhh, Paula, you sure make me want to pick my Ali Smith book up right this very moment. I definitely need to remedy that soon, and I know where it is on my stair shelves. Loved your anecdotes and learning more about this author. Hope you have been well. I send over my good thoughts to you every day, and I hope you can feel them. ♥️

    • I just knew you would have a staircase filing system, Jennifer. I bet you’ve got a particular step for authors named Smith, or perhaps a bit of landing especially for Scottish authors. Thank you for all your good thoughts, they are very much appreciated. 🤗

  5. I’ve read quite a few of Ali Smith’s novels but not her stories. She always strikes me as being such an inventive writer, full of ideas and interesting things to say.

  6. Hi Paula – I am encouraged to read this collection by Ali Smith. Recently I read a book published here in the U.S. called This is What A Librarian Looks Like that contains color photos and quotes from librarians of all kinds working in public libraries, correctional facilities, health and medical research, digital libraries, children’s libraries, etc., etc., interspersed with essays about the history of libraries and writers’ takes on the value of libraries. Libraries have and continue to be an important part of my life, and I am curious to read how Ali Smith has uses them as a theme in her short story collection..

  7. I’ve not read this but I really want to – I’ll see if my library has it, that would be apt! Thank goodness public libraries have such an erudite, accomplished writer on their side.

  8. I’m reading Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. The Ali Smith stories sound like a good follow-up!

  9. I can’t remember which of her collections I read first, but it had a dozen stories in, each only loosely connected to one month in the year (and quietly arranged chronologically), and it won me over completely. Later, in 2003, I was thrilled to see her at the Festival of Authors here in Toronto and she was brilliant. This collection is on my TBR for sure and “The Ex Wife” does sound particularly appealing!

    • I wonder if the collection you mention is ‘The Whole Story and Other Stories’? I haven’t read it yet but I’m aware it relates to the earth’s cycle in some way.

      Ooh, you lucky lady, I would love to attend one of Smith’s discussions. I find her quite fascinating. 😊

  10. This sounds like a winner. I’ve put it on my list. See ya!

    Neil Scheinin


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