Review: Public Library by Ali Smith

25902919Why 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 It was outdated, had ceased to supply me with the information I needed.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!

3.5-4/5 stars


9 thoughts on “Review: Public Library by Ali Smith

  1. How interesting on the font and format – a bit of a rip-off, it sounds like. I bet this makes it into the charity shops here … I loved your reflections on your own library experience, too.

    • I think so too, they could have done a really cute collectible type one! It’s quite a boring cover… and every time I look at the guy on it I think of Mr Big from Sex and the City =P

  2. Our library is right round the corner from the homeless hostels, so the computers are often being used by their residents, and a lot of them read too. Anything that makes the library’s stats look high are a good thing, imho, as it’ll make it less at risk of closure…Actually, since they’ve been revamped, the homeless flats are much nicer and cosier than our private let we pay a fortune for – at least they’ve got double glazing and central heating, which in this weather, I’d kill for!

  3. This sounds lovely! I’ve never read any Ali Smith, but has definitely peaked my interest due to the subject matter. I feel very strongly about public libraries and I would like to see them flourish and consequently nourish our communities. I’m sorry to hear that you found the layout of the book to be so crooked. I too sometimes feel like publishers want to push books to be of certain sizes in order to cash in. Fingers crossed the paperback will be more reasonable!

  4. You got my attention for this one! The library meant much more to me in childhood too, and we’ve had basically identical experiences of school and uni libraries. To be honest, I’ve used my local library once in 5 years, so I don’t even know what their stock is like. I’ve used the eBook borrowing function, but the library is in the town centre, with no car park, so it’s not the easiest to get to for a browse. Must try harder maybe? R xx

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