Pursuing Elsewhere: Ali Smith’s Public Library

Smith, Ali. Public Library and Other Stories. Hamish Hamilton, 2015.

If you are a reader, and I expect you are given that you’re reading this blog, then you are probably intimately acquainted with your local public library. That is to say if you still have one. For many reasons, the public library is under threat in many jurisdictions world-wide. The situation is far worse than I had imagined. In preparation for writing this post, I did a little internet overview of such search terms as “disappearing libraries,” “UK libraries closing,” and “disappearing libraries in Canada.” Try the exercise for yourself. The threads you will follow may well depress you. Here we are in what is commonly referred to as the information age, but in many ways access to that information and the ability to assess the value of that information is actually being curtailed.

I am not alone, of course, in being concerned about the situation, and Ali Smith’s 2015 book Public Library is one response to the problem. It begins with a “true story” (1) in which Smith recounts how she and her editor entered “a building with the word LIBRARY above its doors . . . that looked like a fancy shop” (1). They discovered on enquiry that they were not in a library but a hotel attached to a private club. Follow this link https://www.booking.com/hotel/gb/library.en-gb.html?aid=356994;label=gog235jc-hotel-XX-gb-library-unspec-ca-com-L%3Aen-O%3AosSx-B%3Asafari-N%3AXX-S%3Abo-U%3AXX-H%3As;sid=bb31632db395ef152de64246c0f464b2;dist=0&sb_price_type=total&type=total&#availability and you will discover more.

Public Library is more than a collection of fiction; it is also a collection of reminiscences from other writers about public libraries. These are interspersed among the fiction and differentiated from them by the use of italics. But in many ways, these memories become self-contained stories in themselves: random, individual, and yet as thematically connected as the fiction with which they co-exist. Once again, Smith draws attention to her interest in the challenges offered by any narrative to our expectations of and definition of truth in fiction. Her work is allusive and at times elusive. To relate more closely with the story “The Poet” (59-73), for example, I had to look up Olive Fraser, a poet with whom I was unfamiliar.

The stories depend heavily on the first person, their narrators sometimes male and sometimes female. They deal with memory and change, life and death. As I have come to expect of Smith, she revels in transition, transgression, transcendence. One of the stories is even titled “The Art of Elsewhere” (127-132).

Smith’s Public Library is neither strident nor unsubtle in its wit and critique. Rather, it boldly defends that opportunity to be “elsewhere” offered free by the public library to anyone with a library card. The library offers a haven, an escape, a road to adventure and discovery. Perhaps this is why some of the people who fund them are so reluctant to keep doing so.

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