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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101973042
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 789,687
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About 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.

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.

Table of Contents

Library 1

Last 5

That beautiful new build 19

Good voice 23

Opened by mark twain 41

The beholder 43

A clean, well-lighted place 57

The poet 59

The ideal model of society 75

The human claim 77

Soon to be sold 97

The ex-wife 99

Put a price on that 121

The art of elsewhere 127

On bleak, house road 133

After life 135

Curve tracing 151

The definite article 155

The library sunlight 169

Grass 171

The making of me 185

Say I won't be there 187

The infinite possibilities 207

And so on 211

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