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.”
In 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.