Your most recent collection of short stories, framed around the massive closures of public libraries in the UK, borrows its core from the very idea of borrowing. Each of the 12 stories in this collection can be read as an exploration of what we borrow from what we read. Each story lends us something – a word, a book, a well-beloved writer – that, despite being already absent from the plot by the time of its narration, has made that plot possible.
There is no story called “Public Library” in this collection. The absence of the titular story is very telling: as if the book’s core were not there anymore, and we could only sense the music it had left behind; the effect this now blank space had had on the characters – something perhaps much similar to the influence our now closed libraries may have had on our lives.
Through different perspectives, each story explores the way we are connected by language and by the books we share. Each story lends us a reflection on how we could be better understood not only through the books we have read, but also through the way we have read those books; from each story, we can borrow a reflection on how much in our lives may have been actually borrowed from a book. We can enter your collection as we enter a library, and borrow without any guilt, no payment needed for the interaction to take place.
The stories are mostly told in first person narration by an unnamed character whose gender remains often unmentioned. In one of my favourite stories in this collection, “The Beholder”, which almost reads like a dark fairy-tale, the protagonist discovers a woody lump on her/ his chest, shortly after being diagnosed with depression. The lump rapidly grows into a blossoming tree, a rosebush named after John Milton’s poem Lycidas, on the 400th anniversary of his birth. Like all truly beautiful things, this tree is also highly inconvenient; it can at once charm and hurt the people around her/ him: “I am careful when kissing, or when taking anyone in my arms. I warn them about the thorns.”
Some of the stories in the book are haunted by ghosts, dead writers who interfere in a relationship, apparitions with whom the narrators hold long conversations – much similar to the conversations we hold in silence with the authors we read. In “Good Voice”, a woman talks to her dead father about the World Wars, while being herself haunted by a photo of executions, recordings of lost British dialects and a book of war poetry. In “The Ex-Wife”, Katherine Mansfield is the third party in a couple’s break-up. The protagonist, who at first felt ignored by her/his partner’s obsession with Mansfield, begins to be haunted by this writer’s ghost, and slowly falls in love with her. By reading her letters and journals, the narrator not only conjures up Mansfield herself, but also the ‘ghost’ of his/her lost partner. In “The Definite Article”, while taking a walk, the narrator envisages London’s Regent’s Park as a place haunted by literature – the Shelleys, Elizabeth Bowen, Virginia Woolf, Dickens … -, a library in the open, a place of “endless stories, all crossing across each other”. Your collection itself is in a way also haunted – by the books you’ve read, by your love of words, by all the libraries now closed. And it is a place of serendipity, as books and libraries often are: places full of stories crossing each other, as we ourselves try to cross them. Books are chanced upon, words are borrowed, we stay with them for a while, then we leave.
Your collection is also a powerful reflection on the impossibility to convert into any form of currency this serendipitous aspect of literature. This impossibility is here embodied in the idea of public libraries: a place where, on principle, relationships are not mediated by money. In “Grass”, a copy of Herrick’s poems serves as a catalyst that brings the protagonist back to her/his teenage years. One day, when he/ she was working in her/ his father’s shop, a child attempts to buy a toaster using wild flowers as payment. Only later, the protagonist understands that his/her idea of value – not the child’s idea – may have been the distorted one. Reading is an act of communion – with writers, with other readers, with oneself -, and as such it is not to be easily traded upon.
Your trademark is present here, as in your other books: your playfulness with words, their shapes and sounds. In “Good Voice”, the protagonist could be borrowing your words as he/she remarks, while trying to write a story: “I want it to be about voice, not image, because everything’s image these days and I have a feeling we’re getting further and further away from human voices.” You force us into seeing and hearing those voices, and you also force words into behaving as living things; things we share, but only for a while; mutable things, with which you make unexpected connections – so unexpected as the ones happening in our everyday lives.
Libraries and books are spaces of serendipity, places in which people can lose themselves, and unexpectedly find something else in return. In “The poet”, about the life of Olive Fraser, the protagonist finds music beneath the spines of an old novel. In “The art of elsewhere”, one character yearns for elsewhere, a place to be reached only through literature. In “Last”, while ruminating on the roots of common words, the protagonist rescues a wheelchair-user trapped inside a parked train. Books and libraries can be escape routes, places one can flee to. And your way of playing with words can also be an escape route, I guess: a space where language breaks free from its usual limitations.
In the final story, “And so on”, the narrator is commissioned to writing “for a short story anthology where all the stories have to be about death”. I guess this short story collection you were commissioned to write about libraries is also, in a way, now that they were massively closed, about a kind of death. Almost a sort of collection of ghost stories. However, as much as the narrator of “And so on” has tried to write about death, in the end, he/she has most powerfully written about life. And so have you.
Interspersed with the stories, we have sections in which writers say what public libraries have meant to them. Helen Oyeyemi, Kate Atkinson, Kamila Shamsie, Miriam Toews, Jackie Kay, among others, offer their testimonies and reflections on the importance of public libraries – and those vignettes almost read like eulogies. Well, as I am writing a letter about a book whose structure is punctuated by passionate testimonies, I should reciprocate this unexpectedly shared intimacy by offering you a piece of my own personal history with public libraries. As Lori Beck has put it in one of the vignettes: “The only way I can express how important public libraries are is to tell you about myself.”
The first time I was taught the meaning of a public library I was eight-years-old. I come from a family where we enjoy telling each other stories – mostly ghost stories, told at night, around the table, in the kitchen -, but neither my grandparents nor my parents were readers. Fiction was not something to be taken seriously in my family – so much so, that every time I was caught reading, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat ashamed. For a long time, the only books we had at home were medical books, an old bible which belonged to my grandfather, and an encyclopaedia.
At eight, partly out of lack of alternatives, I decided I was old enough to set myself the goal of reading those books from cover to cover. The medical ones had images sometimes gruesome enough to keep me interested. The bible I treated as a conventional fiction book, to be read from the first page to the last. I didn’t understand most of it, but it sounded so different from what I had to learn at Sunday school that I felt I was reading a forbidden book – and that feeling of trespassing was all that I needed to keep reading. From the encyclopaedia, I only actually read the entries related to the outer space – the stars, galaxies, moons, comets -, as I was at that time intent on becoming an astronaut. I must have been deeply in need of the art of elsewhere back then.
My teacher at that time must have guessed as much, or maybe my school compositions were too full of strange events badly borrowed from the book of Revelation. I don’t know. The fact was, one day, she unexpectedly called me when the class was over and asked me the strangest question: Has your mother ever taken you to the public library? I had no idea what this public library thing was. In fact, I had the vague feeling that the very word public didn’t mean anything good: it reminded me of playthings broken in a park near my house; it reminded me of a bus full of people and not having a place to sit; public was any place where we had to stand in a long line, or a moment when someone makes fun of you in front of others. No, it could not be anything good. But, as I usually did when asked about my family, I felt that that question was an accusation I had to protect my mother from. So, I gave my typical answer to random accusations ordinarily made by adults: I lied. Of course, she took me. It was so fun!
The teacher considered me for a minute or two, made as if she would say something, then dismissed me. When I came home, I did the obvious thing: I immediately addressed my mother with a twisted version of the teacher’s question, one that best suited my curiosity. My teacher told me you should have taken me to the public library. And my mother snapped back with her obvious answer: Your teacher should be told to mind her own business. Later someone would say about me something that the eight-year-old me already knew I had borrowed from my mother: we are both like cats – everything must be done on our own terms. I had learned from my mother that we should not blindly accept what teachers say, but should instead try to challenge it, and often discard it. So, I was pleased enough by her answer, and forgot this public library thing. It already sounded like one of those boring places I was forced to go to appease adults: like school, or the church.
About three weeks later, much to my surprise, my mother told me we would go to the public library on our way to the dentist. Having to go to the dentist was already something bad enough, the fact the it would be topped with the visit to this public book thing – a place that sounded like a room full of used school books -, only made me more anxious. Once there, though, surrounded by shelves full of books, I immediately let go of my distrust. I let go of my mother’s hand, and simply walked to the shelves, like an insect drawn to a lamp.
It was the children’s section. I was approached by a librarian who asked me a question I thought adults normally didn’t asked children. What do you like? What an odd question. I had learned that what one likes is not to be considered important, especially if one was a child; and if one spent too much time doing things he liked, he was probably a very lazy person, or a very rich one, or both. I didn’t understand at first that the librarian was asking me which kind of books I liked. I like pirates, astronauts, dragons, horses, detectives, haunted houses and, of course, ghosts. And whales. It should have been difficult to find a book which could fit so many categories, but, after some consideration, she came back with Pippi Longstocking – a book which was soon to become one of my childhood favourites.
Shortly afterwards, my mother called me and told me my library card was ready. The librarian asked me if I would take the book. As many times before, when I was made a similar question, I felt afraid I was going to ask for something my mother would be ashamed to tell me – in public – that we couldn’t have. So, I gave the librarian my usual I-am-playing- indifferent answer: No, thank you. My mother must have understood, because she laughed and immediately said: You don’t have to pay. I could take books and not pay for them? Yes, up to five books at a time. Then you give them back, and borrow five more, and so on. I had never been allowed to have something for free before. It was an entirely new way of thinking. It must have felt like something had broken right open inside me. Almost like the feeling we have when someone tries to pay for a toaster with a bunch of flowers, I guess.
“And the book had broken right open and that’s when she’d seen there was a music inside it, one nobody knew about, one you could never have guessed at, that was part of the way that the book had been made.”
― Ali Smith,
“Words were stories in themselves.”
― Ali Smith,
About the book
- Hamish Hamilton, 2015, 220 p. Goodreads;
- My rating: 4,5 stars;
- This book was kindly sent to me by Anchor for review.