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Public Library and Other Stories
     

Public Library and Other Stories

by Ali Smith
 

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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 unraveling 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

Overview

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 unraveling 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.

Woven between the stories are conversations with writers and readers reflecting on the essential role that libraries have played in their lives. At a time when public libraries around the world face threats of cuts and closures, this collection stands as a work of literary activism—and as a wonderful read from one of our finest authors.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Edmund White
This collection of stories by one of England's best novelists is both playful and serious in the manner of Laurence Sterne, the 18th-century author of Tristram Shandy…As distinct and idiosyncratic as Public Library is…its themes are also timeless and universal…Books, libraries, writers, words—these are all Smith's subjects. She tells us of the astonishingly common English words that were invented by John Milton. She tells us the original meaning of familiar words…She seldom fashions a good story in the usual sense; instead she gives us nosegays of associations, but these flowers have burrs. They stick in the imagination.
Publishers Weekly
08/29/2016
Smith’s (How to Be Both) collection celebrates the communal impact of books through a breezy series of slice-of-life tales that highlight the casual inroads of life and literature, pairing ordinary readers with the writing that has shaped them. In “Good Voice,” a book of poems by the WWI poet Wilfred Owen is the conduit between a girl and the memory of her veteran father. “The Poet” is a microbiography of the Scottish poet Olive Fraser that notes how the minutiae of her troubled life is captured in her Keatsian stanzas. “The Human Claim” is a long meditation on the fate of D.H. Lawrence’s ashes. “Last” records a passing moment on a train between a woman and a commuter with a head full of Greek etymologies. Other stories feature a doctor’s visit informed by Milton, a reconstruction of the life of the singer Dusty Springfield, and two ex-spouses recalling their relationship through encounters with the word sepulchral. Each of these is followed by a recollection by one of Smith’s peers about their memories of public libraries, significant because this book appeared in the U.K. amid a tense battle over massive cuts to library funding. Smith’s book is certainly precious, but its earnestness and certainty that we are the sum of what we read is affecting and well-taken. This is a valiant project that depicts the everyday joy of books and makes a passionate plea for their preservation. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
“Smith’s (How to Be Both) collection celebrates the communal impact of books through a breezy series of slice-of-life tales that highlight the casual inroads of life and literature, pairing ordinary readers with the writing that has shaped them. . . . Each of these is followed by a recollection by one of Smith’s peers about their memories of public libraries, significant because this book appeared in the U.K. amid a tense battle over massive cuts to library funding. . . . Affecting. . . . This is a valiant project that depicts the everyday joy of books and makes a passionate plea for their preservation.”
Publishers Weekly
 
“While Man Booker Prize finalist Smith (How to Be Both, 2014) was working on this collection of thoughtful, sensitive, imaginative, and acidly funny short stories about characters besotted by language and books, public libraries throughout the UK were being shut down. In protest, Smith asked other writers to share their thoughts about why public libraries are essential to a life fully lived, to community and democracy, and she sets clarion testimony in support of public libraries from Kate Atkinson, Helen Oyeyemi, Miriam Toews, and others, in-between her exceptionally nimble, disarming, and affecting tales. Smith’s smart, discouraged loners are beset by difficult memories and grief, and driven to quiet acts of rebellion. In one wily and crackling tale, Smith juxtaposes her narrator’s fascination with D. H. Lawrence against her dismay over finding fraudulent charges on her credit card. Other arresting, emotionally incisive stories portray on-the-edge characters enthralled by Katherine Mansfield and Olive Fraser, a Scottish poet published only after her death. Smith has forged a uniquely artistic and piquant paean to the liberating and sustaining power of literature and libraries.”
—Booklist

“Thank goodness for Ali Smith, for who else could write a short story collection about libraries and make it wild.” —The Times (London)

“A series of wonderful stories on the power of books.” —Mary Beard, The Guardian (Best Books of the Year)

“Extraordinarily artful. . . . A triumph.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)

“Smith’s own stories leap across space and time, delighting in unexpected connections. . . . Each of Smith’s stories is a gem.” —Financial Times

“A work of endless interventions. . . . Smith’s great talent is her ability to produce on the page the effect of a human voice.” —Ian Samson, The Guardian (London)

“An important book.” —The Independent (Books of the Year)

“Superb. . . . [A] wonderful collection. . . . It has been Smith’s unlikely triumph throughout her increasingly acclaimed career to combine a playful and experimental approach with material that is both moving and funny—and she has done it again.” —Daily Mail

“There are sentences that sing, or make you smile, and the conceit behind each of the stories is distinctively offbeat.” —The Herald (Glasgow)

“Spritely, poignant. . . . Magical. . . . Alive to the ability words have to garland a life and make the ordinary bloom into something fresh and funny.” —Mail on Sunday (London)

 “Reading this collection is like spending an afternoon in a well-stocked library in the company of an erudite and playful companion.” —The Daily Telegraph (London)

“Smith’s stories are so good as to be priceless.” —Sunday Express (London)

“Beautiful. . . . Wonderful. Her prose dances. Her imagination lights up life and experience. This is a book to read slowly, to savour its vitality and variety, one to return to and find new pleasures with each reading.” —The Scotsman

“Endearing and affecting. The extraordinary is always rooted in the corporeal . . . and this lends Smith’s voice much of its considerable charm. . . . The narration is often arch, winking at you from the pages, rightfully proud of its own showmanship and subtlety, and is fundamentally human.” —The London Magazine

“A brilliant, comprehensive, unpredictable defence of public libraries. You can travel anywhere on Ali Smith’s library ticket.” —Kate Kellaway, The Guardian (London)

“Powerful. . . . Beautifully written. . . . A gentle, comforting, and thought-provoking read. . . . It is a blessing to have authors such as Ali Smith.” —Stylist

“Smith’s world is incredibly generous—it’s a place where all sorts of stories and human connections are possible.” —Metro

“A series of spirited short stories, in an ingenious blend of fact and fiction. . . . The result is a love-song to literature that all readers will delight in dipping in and out of.” —Lucy Brooks, Culture Whisper

“A moving, surprising, beautiful collection. . . . So clever and so joyful.” —Open Democracy

Library Journal
★ 09/01/2016
In one surreal if lucidly rendered story in this distinctive collection from Man Booker finalist Smith (How to be both), a woman whose body has sprouted roses says, "I had surprised myself by crying about, of all things, how beautiful a word can be." In fact, all the stories here are word-drunk; etymology is ever at stake, and one story mourns the loss of British Isles dialects since World War I even as it shows how the poetry of that era captures its "gone voices." Sharing and preserving such voices are central themes here. As Smith's introduction explains, "This happens to be a book that celebrates the communal impact on us of books and of reading," and upon its publication it became part of the campaign to defend UK public libraries from politically motivated service cuts. Included are reflections on the library's importance from ordinary readers and major authors like Kate Atkinson. VERDICT Original and always surprising. [See Prepub Alert, 4/25/16.]
Kirkus Reviews
2016-07-20
An engaging collection of stories that explore how people are connected by words, ideas, events, and memories and, not coincidentally, how those connections may be lost when public libraries are closed.Scottish writer Smith (How to Be Both, 2014, etc.) notes that U.K. budget cuts threaten to close as many as 1,000 public libraries. She describes her latest book as one “that celebrates the communal impact on us of books and of reading.” That is clearly the case in the italicized sections between the stories, in which writers and others say what public libraries have meant to them. The thematic resonance of the stories is subtler. The opener, “Last,” observes a handicapped woman accidentally trapped on a train through the eyes of a narrator whose mind wanders to the etymologies of “buxom,” “stamina,” “clue,” and other words, to thoughts of her childhood and pressing many-leaved clovers in a book. Allusive, indirect, and only superficially conclusive, the story conveys an affection for and playfulness with language that reappears elsewhere. A disturbing photo of military executions seems to be the focal point of “Good Voice,” where personal history elides into the world’s through a book. The story dances from Fred Astaire to a child’s nightmares, German exchange students, and the many words a reader underlined in a book of first world war poetry. One story segues from thoughts of D.H. Lawrence to a credit-card dispute and back to the writer. “The Ex-Wife,” probably the best of the collection, has the narrator trying to cope with an ex-wife’s love of books but then getting caught up in the writing of Katherine Mansfield and coming to appreciate both women more. Smith’s casual, almost conversational style and structure don’t produce conventional short stories, but there’s an enticing intellect at work, and the accompanying threnody for lost libraries is sadly complementary.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101973042
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/04/2016
Pages:
240
Sales rank:
121,461
Product dimensions:
5.18(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

Here’s a true story. Simon, my editor, and I had been meeting to talk about how I’d put together this book you’re reading right now. We set off on a short walk across central London to his office to photocopy some stories I’d brought with me.
    Just off Covent Garden we saw a building with the word LIBRARY above its doors.
    It didn’t look like a library. It looked like a fancy shop.
    What do you think it is? Simon said.
    Let’s see, I said.
    We crossed the road and went in.
    Inside everything was painted black. There was a little vestibule and in it a woman was standing behind a high reception desk. She smiled a hello. Further in, straight ahead of us, I could just glimpse some people sitting at a table and we could hear from behind a thin partition wall the sounds of people drinking and talking.
    Hello, we said. Is this a library?
    The woman lost her smile.
    No, she said.
    A man came through from behind the partition. Hello, he said. Can I help at all?
    We saw the word library, Simon said. Was this a library once? I said. She’s a writer, Simon said by way of explaining. He’s an editor, I said.
    We’re a private members club, the man said. We also have a select number of hotel rooms.
    I picked up a laminated leaflet from a pile on the desk about some kind of food promotion or taster deal. Simon picked up a card.
    Have you actually got actual books? I said.
    We do do some books as a feature. Please help yourself to a card, the man said a bit pointedly since we already had.
    (Later, when I got home, I unfolded the advert I’d taken, which was for a company working with Library to produce three-course meals which allowed diners to relive your favourite musicals (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory | Phantom of the Opera | Les Miserables | Matilda). I typed in the Library website address off the advert. When it came up I noticed for the first time that a central part of the textual design of the use of the word Library was the thin line drawn through the middle of it . . . 
    This is what was listed next to the photographs of its 5 luxurious, individually designed, air-conditioned rooms with many modern amenities and comfortable beds : • Terrace Bar • 24 Hour Concierge • Ground floor lounge with stage and bar • Massage and Beauty treatment room • Kitchen with Chef’s table (April 2015) • Private Dining and boardroom with conferencing • Double mezzanine with bridge • Smoking Terrace • Access to rare Library books.
    Simon pocketed the card. I folded the advert about the food promotion into my inside pocket.
    Thanks very much, we said.
    Then we left.
   We crossed the road and stopped on the pavement opposite, where we’d first seen the word above the door. We looked back at it. Simon shrugged.
    Library, he said.
    Now we know, I said.

In the UK over the past few years—over the length of time, in fact, that it’s taken me to write these stories and edit this book—we've been having to fight hard to preserve an onslaught on our public library tradition. A series of politically driven public services cuts all over the country has been shredding away the rich and communal inheritance that this book in your hands—I could say any book in anyone's hands—celebrates.
 
When I published this collection in the UK it became part of a fierce fight, a growing national movement here determined to defend our public libraries. This happens to be a book that celebrates the communal impact on us of books and of reading, their vital importance when it comes to our individual lives and our shared historiespersonal, cultural, social, local and international. It celebrates the ways our lives have been at least enhanced and at most enabled and transformed by access to public libraries.
 
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.
 
Now here's the book, crossing the world like books do, and here's a greeting to the readers of this new North American edition. Hello. This book wishes you well. It wishes you the world. It wishes you somewhere warm, safe, well-lit, thoughtful, free, wide open to everybody, where you'll be surrounded by books and all the different possible ways of reading them. It wishes you fierceness and determination if anyone or anything threatens to take away your open access to place, space, time, thought, knowledge.
 
It wishes you libraries—endless public libraries.

Meet the Author

Ali Smith is the author of many works of fiction, including the novel Hotel World, which was short-listed for both the Orange Prize and the Booker Prize and won the Encore Award and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award, and The Accidental, which won the Whitbread Award and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize. Her most recent novel, How to be both, was a Man Booker Prize finalist and winner of the Bailey Women’s Prize, the Goldsmith Prize, the Costa Novel Award, and the Saltire Literary Book of the Year Award. Born in Inverness, Scotland, Smith lives in Cambridge, England.

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