Book of the Week

Public Library And Other Stories by Ali Smith. Photo: PA Photo/Hamish Hamilton

Public Library And Other Stories by Ali Smith. Photo: PA Photo/Hamish Hamilton

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Public Library And Other Stories by Ali Smith.

Public libraries are under threat. In the few weeks that Ali Smith spent editing the 12 short stories for this collection, 43 libraries came under threat of closure. There are one thousand fewer libraries now, she has calculated, than when she started writing the book.

Here Smith puts her new fame and influence as author of the multi prize-winning How To Be Both to good use. There is no story called ‘Public Library’ in this collection, but Smith surrounds her work with powerful comments from others - authors, librarians, strangers - on what public libraries mean to them.

“Without access to the public library as a child, my world would have been smaller” writes one; “a democratic space where anyone can go” says novelist Kate Atkinson’s daughter, “somewhere you can just be”.

Smith’s stories are varied and beautifully written, wry and understated, capturing moments of human connection and joy. They range from the unexpected exhilaration of three teenage boys sharing a cigarette with a disabled woman stuck in a train, through meditations on grief and First World War poetry to Penguin paperbacks.

In one of the strongest, a biographer’s tale about D.H. Lawrence’s ashes leads to a funny account of credit card fraud, call-centre frustration, and the wonders of Google Street View. What brings the collection together is an investment in words and the power of real books themselves: books that can be shared and borrowed, broken or treasured.

In one interlude from a trainee librarian, we learn of a book that was sent out to British Prisoners of War in 1917 and returned two years later. “Libraries have always been a part of any civilization, they are not negotiable” writes another correspondent. Smith’s book about the power of storytelling and being alive reminds us what we are fighting for.