Public Library turned out to be not just a set a sparklingly brilliant short stories by the highly acclaimed Scottish writer, Ali Smith, but also a passionate and spirited advocacy for the institution itself. Smith, along with her editor, decided to ask various people — fellow writers, random strangers, close friends — what they thought about public libraries: “their history, their importance and the recent spate of closures.” She then interleaved the results with her stories — or perhaps it’s the other way round — so the whole book is like a layer-cake, alternating between Smith’s voice and others’.
One of Smith’s correspondents calls the local library of her childhood a “gateway to a wider world, a lifeline, an essential resource, a cave of wonder. Without access to the public library as a child, my world would have been smaller, and infinitely less rich… All children should be so lucky.”
Another delights in the fact that among the list of weapons — including stakes, swords and sunlight — that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has at her disposal is a ‘library card’. “Libraries save the world, a lot,” she goes on to explain, seeing them as “an anarcho-syndicalist collective where each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings and knowledge: the book.”
What libraries give you, that no search-engine ever can, is the joy of the browse. In a library, you can judge a book by its cover, pick it up and take it home on a whim, or because its title made you chuckle. It’s an open invitation to meet thousands of authors, to step into exactly the number of parallel universes as there are books on the shelves, for that’s what they are: doorways.
Smith’s stories are not set in libraries nor do they feature librarians as characters. They are, however, about books and words and writers, and how life is shot through with connections. In almost every story, a writer lingers around like a ghost. In ‘The ex-wife’, Katherine Mansfield is the third party who gets between the two partners in a relationship; in ‘The human claim’, it is DH Lawrence (or at least his ashes); in ‘The poet’, it is the little-known Scottish poet Olive Fraser. The relationships we forge with the writers whose works we love has a direct effect on our real relationships with the people we love. Smith’s particular genius lies in the way she marries the fantastical and the domestic. Her stories are quirky and often very funny, they are also laser-sharp, tender, deeply odd, and memorable. One reviewer describes them as a ‘nosegay’ handed over but whose flowers have burrs — they stick.
“Reading is thinking” reads the strapline of the Community Library project, which runs a community library in the Ramditti JR Narang Deepalaya Learning Centre in Sheikh Sarai, New Delhi. The library was started by the writers Mridula Koshy and Michael Creighton. “We believe … students that read and think will be happier and more successful in life — in the work they do, but also in how they contribute to their communities and families.”
Reaching out to the systematically disenfranchised, those on the lowest rung of the ladder, Koshy and Creighton and their team of volunteers have, since 2015, set about changing lives, word by word, book by book, idea by idea. I think they would approve of another of Smith’s interviewees who says that a library should be “a democratic space where anyone can go and be there with other people, and you don’t need money — a clean, well-lighted place… whose underlying municipal truth is that it isn’t a shop.”
Of course ‘clean’ and ‘well-lighted’ is hard to achieve in a Delhi riven with dust storms and power-cuts, but the democratic space is there nevertheless: a rare and precious resource for those most in need. One of their volunteers, Ritika Puri, writes that “community libraries are important not just because they provide free access to books… [but] because they give everyone access to belonging, belonging which is imperative to living. The belonging into a warm, safe world of stories, a world where everyone is welcome.”
Another of Smith’s correspondent describes libraries as, “at heart, helpful and kind providers…. It is the poorest, most isolated and the least able in our society who suffer most if they are gone. If our society does not care for libraries, then it is not caring for its most vulnerable.” Underfunded, underused and under threat — the state of our libraries speaks volumes.
First published in The Hindu Business Line supplement, 20 May 2018