I have only ever read one other book by Ali Smith, How To Be Both, and I really loved it. I expected great things from Public Library and Other Stories. While it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great either. The stories are not about libraries. Between each story is a one to three page nonfitction story about a library or libraries contributed by people Smith knows.
The book was published in the UK in the midst of huge cuts to public libraries and the intention of the interwoven library stories is to draw attention to the importance of libraries for everyone. Most of these stories are delightful because they relate experiences nearly universal to readers and library users — the magic of getting to choose a book from the adult section of the library for the first time, the freedom a library offers, the wide field for curiosity and discovery, fuel for our reading passions. Reading them made me recall library experiences of my own, a pleasant meander through my memories.
Smith’s stories, they are solid and well-written. But I found the voice, the tone, no matter the story, to be same-y with not much variation between so they all sound and feel alike. Smith has one of those mellow voices, kind of subdued and understated, quiet. This means none of the stories have much zip, verve, force. They are like the steady drip of water drilling a hole in rock rather than a rushing river tearing at its banks. I am fine with the steady drip, but I do like a rushing river now and then to break up the monotony.
At least the stories themselves are about all sorts of things. In “Last” a woman in a wheelchair gets stuck on the train when it pulls into its final stop. Everyone disembarks and the doors lock before the woman can leave. The story narrator and a bunch of kids wandering the tracks see her and a sort of farce ensues before anyone thinks to go find help.
“Good Voice” is a story about the narrator’s grandfather and a WWII photo he is in. The narrator converses with her father who is dead. Her father is a voice in her head and they argue and tease and joke.
Another story, “The Beholder,” is about a woman who has trouble breathing. She goes to the doctor who prescribes her pills. But there is nothing that pills or medicine can cure because it turns out she has a shrub growing out of her, it leafs and flowers and she is quite proud of it.
You might be gathering at this point that Smith writes about unusual things. Yup. That’s actually the only thing that really kept the stories from getting dull. But she writes about “normal” things too. Like “The Poet,” which begins with a book being thrown across the room. The thrower immediately regrets it, the book is old and the throw breaks the spine. But picking up the book she sees that the paper used in binding the book was an old musical score. This sort of thing was apparently common in long ago printing. The score has a name on it, Olive Fraser. Our narrator investigates and it turns out Olive Fraser was a poet born in 1909 in Aberdeen and the short story turns into her story and then back again.
Overall I enjoyed the collection. The stories are various and interesting and often strange even if the voice and tone change little. Smith has other story collections and if they are all similar to this one I am not sure I would want to read them. I think her style works best in a novel, at least in the one I read. I do want to give her other novels a try and see how I get on with them. Has anyone read any of her other stories and if so, what did you think of them?