Why are books so very powerful?
What do the books we’ve read over our lives – our own personal libraries – make of us?
What does the unravelling of our tradition of public libraries, so hard-won but now in jeopardy, say about us?
The stories in Ali Smith’s new collection are about what we do with books and what they do with us: how they travel 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.
Public libraries are places of joy, freedom, community and discovery – and right now they are under threat from funding cuts and widespread closures across the UK and further afield. With this brilliantly inventive collection, Ali Smith joins the campaign to save our public libraries and celebrate their true place in our culture and history.
I got so excited by this short story collection, despite never having read any Ali Smith before. I was interested in the premise, and couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into it.
My local library was a source of wonder and joy when I was a child. I’d go and spin the spinners of books, borrow all the Babysitters Club books my mum would allow and search for new things to read amongst the shelves. My parents would take us to special events there- once, I saw a turtle pee all over it’s handler at a wildlife show. I painted things, listened to readings and read all the Goosebumps books. But as I grew older, it became a source of frustration. My library didn’t have what I wanted anymore. It was outdated, had ceased to supply me with the information I needed. In amongst the 80’s reference books and the piles of James Patterson novels, there was the occasional gem, but it became rarer and rarer. The librarians didn’t care anymore. There were fewer spinners. I tried my school library, but being a Catholic school, it had a limited, highly policed selection of what was deemed acceptable. As I’ve transitioned into university, I’ve used the hell out of the library there. It’s become a treasure trove, a source of frustration (where the hell is this book!? Why can’t people shut the f**k up?! are common refrains) and a sanctuary. I’ve moved to a different public library, but that too is awash with pulp fiction and very few books I want to read. It’s disappointing, but it is an important public facility regardless.
Smith’s book at once explores the relevance of the public library to modern life, as well as its personal impact on the lives of humans. She shows how the library is a sanctuary for those who cannot get books elsewhere, for those living far from home, for the lonely and those in dangerous places. She explores the impact of books, writers and characters on people’s lives. Some stories are meandering, confusing and struggle to remain entirely relevant, but others are gorgeous successes. Such is the lot of nearly all short story collections.
For those picking up the paperback, you’ll immediately notice the font is HUGE. I don’t really know why the publisher did that, other than a drive to have a first run trade paperback. I imagine when it goes down in format, the font will grow smaller too, but it was quite an odd feature. Since the font is so large, the book isn’t at all as long as it looks, so it should only take a couple of hours for a reasonably fast reader.
I did enjoy these stories, especially because of the way each is broken up by short investigations into the public library. I especially enjoyed the first story, and the piece on Katherine Mansfield. I laughed at the story involving D.H. Lawrence’s ashes, because frankly, the prick deserved it.
I’d recommend this to any lover of the written word, and librarians would also probably enjoy it even more. Since I disliked some stories and think the publisher should have rethought the formatting and price, I’m giving it a 3.5-4 star rating. I’d probably wait until the smaller format is released, as the RRP of $32AUD is frankly too much for the length of the book, which is probably why sales (in my store anyway) have been so poor. It is a very good short story collection though, and will be one I’ll re-read in the future!