February 25th, 2017
When I finished reading Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith, I immediately went back to the beginning and started it again, which is something I’ve done before with books of poems but not so much with collections of short stories, but for some reason with this one I felt like I should, and I’m glad I did. I think partly I felt like I would enjoy this book more on a re-read, which is true: this may say more about my reading style and/or the kind of week I’d been having than about the book, which consists of 24 pieces, alternating between fiction (short stories) and nonfiction (brief pieces about the importance of public libraries, with input/personal stories from various writers and other people Smith knows). I liked some bits more than I liked others, and I feel like I would have appreciated this even more if I had a personal connection to any of the writers who serve as touchstones in some of the fictional pieces (DH Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Herrick), but overall I really like Smith’s style, her allusiveness and wordplay and humor and smarts.
The fictional pieces in this book are themselves often about books, or about narrative, or about writers, or about memory, and are also often about possibility, about an ordinary day becoming something out of the ordinary in some way, and about the larger sense of opening or possibility that’s tied to memory and story and also to stepping outside normal routines. Highlights for me include the first story, “Last,” which starts with clichés about endings that turn literal and includes a whole bunch of wordplay and etymology,”The Definite Article,” which is about Regent’s Park and is full of really excellent details, and “The Human Claim,” which includes DH Lawrence and credit card fraud and Google Street View, and totally works. There are so many good phrases and descriptions and sentences and paragraphs in these and the rest of the stories in this book: a ride on a very crowded train, for example, is “an exercise in aloofness” (6). A mild winter day in London is “one of the days in January that spring sends ahead of itself” (157). And oh I love this sentence, about reading about Robert Herrick:
There wasn’t much known about this poet’s actual life, the book said, other than that his father killed himself by jumping out of a fourth-floor window, so the book was a lot about what it was like to be on the edge of poverty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the part of London called Cheapside, and about how the houses jutted out from themselves above their first floors, overhung themselves like mushrooms, or galleons, and how until 1661 the people in London had been duty-bound to see to the lighting of their own streets, required by law to hang out lit candles on dark nights. (174)
In the nonfiction bits, I loved Sophie Mayer’s description of the public library as “the best possible shared space, a community of consent — an anarcho-syndicalist collective where each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings, and knowledge: the book” (75-76). Also, this, from Emma Wilson, on going to the library as a child: “Choosing books each week was like laying out the dreams I could have” (124). I have had public library cards from the library wherever I’ve lived from childhood on; I got one in Cambridge, MA in college even though I was only there for a summer and I remember reading Philip Pullman and Walter Benjamin sprawled on the grass in the park; more recently, so many of the books I’ve read over the past decade-plus have been checked out from the Brooklyn Public Library, some that I’ve sought out specifically and others that I’ve just found by chance on the shelves. It’s preaching to the choir to tell me that public libraries expand horizons and provide important services for a huge range of people, but I did enjoy reading about other people’s library-moments and library-memories.