Read an extract from Smith's inspiring and inventive new collection of stories
Simon, my editor, and I had been meeting to talk about a collection of short stories I want to do, called PUBLIC LIBRARY AND OTHER STORIES. We set off on a short walk across central London to his office to photocopy some stories I’d brought with me. Just off Covent Garden we saw a building with the word LIBRARY above its doors.
It didn’t look like a library. It looked like a fancy shop.
What do you think it is? Simon said.
Let’s see, I said.
We crossed the road and went in.
Inside everything was painted black. There was a little vestibule and in it a woman was standing behind a high reception desk. She smiled a hello. Further in, straight ahead of us, I could just glimpse some people sitting at a table and we could hear from behind a thin partition wall the sounds of people drinking and talking.
Hello, we said. Is this a library?
The woman lost her smile.
No, she said.
A man came through from behind the partition. Hello, he said. Can I help at all?
We saw the word library, Simon said. Was this a library once? I said. She’s a writer, Simon said by way of explaining. He’s an editor, I said.
We’re a private members club, the man said. We also have a select number of hotel rooms. I picked up a laminated leaflet from a pile on the desk about some kind of food promotion or taster deal. Simon picked up a card.
Have you actually got actual books? I said.
We do do some books as a feature. Please help yourself to a card, the man said a bit pointedly since we already had.
(Later, when I got home, I unfolded the advert I’d taken, which was for a company working with Library making meals which allowed diners to relive your favourite musicals (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory | Phantom of the Opera | Les Misérables | Matilda). I typed in the Library website address off the advert. When it came up, I noticed for the first time that a central part of the textual design of the use of the word Library was the thin line drawn through the middle of it: L̶i̶b̶r̶a̶r̶y̶.
This is what Library listed next to the photographs of its five luxurious, individually designed, air-conditioned rooms with many modern amenities and comfortable beds:
• Terrace Bar
• 24 Hour Concierge
• Ground floor lounge with stage and bar
• Massage and Beauty treatment room
• Kitchen with Chef’s table (April 2015)
• Private Dining and boardroom with conferencing
•Double mezzanine with bridge
• Smoking Terrace
• Access to rare Library books).
Simon pocketed the card. I folded the advert about the food promotion into my inside pocket.
Thanks very much, we said.
Then we left. We crossed the road and stopped on the pavement opposite, where we’d first seen the word above the door. We looked back at it. Simon shrugged.
Library, he said.
Now we know, I said.
A richly inventive new collection of stories from Ali Smith, author of How to be both, winner of the Baileys Women's Prize and the Costa Novel Award and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
Why are books so very powerful?
What do the books we've read over our lives - our own personal libraries - make of us?
What does the unravelling of our tradition of public libraries, so hard-won but now in jeopardy, say about us?
The stories in Ali Smith's new collection are about what we do with books and what they do with us: how they travel with us; how they shock us, change us, challenge us, banish time while making us older, wiser and ageless all at once; how they remind us to pay attention to the world we make.
Public libraries are places of joy, freedom, community and discovery - and right now they are under threat from funding cuts and widespread closures across the UK and further afield. With this brilliantly inventive collection, Ali Smith joins the campaign to save our public libraries and celebrate their true place in our culture and history.