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 unraveling 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.
Woven between the stories are conversations with writers and readers reflecting on the essential role that libraries have played in their lives. At a time when public libraries around the world face threats of cuts and closures, this collection stands as a work of literary activism—and as a wonderful read from one of our finest authors.
Smith's (How to Be Both) collection celebrates the communal impact of books through a breezy series of slice-of-life tales that highlight the casual inroads of life and literature, pairing ordinary readers with the writing that has shaped them. In "Good Voice," a book of poems by the WWI poet Wilfred Owen is the conduit between a girl and the memory of her veteran father. "The Poet" is a microbiography of the Scottish poet Olive Fraser that notes how the minutiae of her troubled life is captured in her Keatsian stanzas. "The Human Claim" is a long meditation on the fate of D.H. Lawrence's ashes. "Last" records a passing moment on a train between a woman and a commuter with a head full of Greek etymologies. Other stories feature a doctor's visit informed by Milton, a reconstruction of the life of the singer Dusty Springfield, and two ex-spouses recalling their relationship through encounters with the word sepulchral. Each of these is followed by a recollection by one of Smith's peers about their memories of public libraries, significant because this book appeared in the U.K. amid a tense battle over massive cuts to library funding. Smith's book is certainly precious, but its earnestness and certainty that we are the sum of what we read is affecting and well-taken. This is a valiant project that depicts the everyday joy of books and makes a passionate plea for their preservation.