I grew up surrounded by books. I know the agonising pain of having to pick only six books from the library for the week. I felt the frustration of my mother telling me to put down a book and speak to our friends. I know the thrill of receiving a new book for Christmas, and the urgency with which it must be devoured. I’ve lost hours to the lives of characters and their adventures, seen myself reflected in the pages and explored an infinite number of new possibilities, and wherever I am in the world make sure to take myself to the library. In the library one can be safe, and stretched. It’s bliss.
And it saddens me to think that this wonderful institution, an educational resource and gateway of imagination and possibility is being removed from our communities at an alarming rate. Ali Smith estimates that in the time it took her to write the twelve short stories in her collection Public Libraries, one thousand of them closed.
None of the stories actually take place in a library, but they all explore the power and potency of books in our lives. Interwoven with relationship struggles, journeys to work, transport delays, credit card fraud and the daily grind are the etymology of words, ashes of DH Lawrence, and obsession with Katherine Mansfield, and former haunts of the Shelleys. Books become part of the fabric of life, with libraries only one home of those ‘endless stories, all crossing each other.’
Between each story are personal reflections on the importance of libraries, and these were the sections that made me smile and tingle the most. Jackie Kay talks of finding ‘kindred spirits’ in the network of individuals borrowing, and Helen Oyeyemi credits libraries with being ‘the making of me.’ A glorious example of democracy, Pat Hunter refers to the Public Libraries Act 1850 and the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 and how this makes them a non negotiable of our society, something that Sophie Mayer refers to as ‘the ideal model of society’ and ‘best possible use of shared space.’ Sarah Wood reflects on school holidays cycling back and forth to her local library, and Clare Jennings describes her early education in the library as a ‘serendipity of learning.’
Ali Smith’s writing is deft, specific, and very human. Her attention to detail conjures up images and echoes the sounds of life with immediacy and presence. Winner of the 2015 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for How to be both, she is one of the UK’s most acclaimed contemporary writers. She might not be were it not for the library.
Published by Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, November 2015.