PUBLIC LIBRARY AND OTHER STORIES
Chancing upon a decommissioned library turned private members' club on a walk with her editor, Ali Smith's collection of short stories finds its thread as she begins to ask everyone she knows and meets for their thoughts on public libraries. Interspersing their responses between the twelve pieces of fiction that comprise the collection – themselves a testament to all the things Smith herself has learnt from libraries ('We are sponges and what we read goes directly into us and comes right through us, it goes into our skin and comes back out of our skin having gone right round our system and acted like nourishment' – Smith in a podcast interview with Claire Armitstead) – the whole book acts as both celebration and warning. What will happen if (when?) these public spaces - open to everyone, shapers of self, so beloved, so vitally needed – close?
Published in 2015, at the time Smith spoke in interviews about the 27 libraries that were shut during the short period that it took to finish editing her book. Now, four years later, many more have gone the same way (in December 2018 The Guardian reported that 130 public libraries had been closed in the last year). And current political climes don't bode well for the future. Heart can be taken however from Smith's final story in which she writes about a friend who has passed away but whom she imagines is not dead but actually a piece of art that has been stolen, 'and wherever those thieves are hiding her till they can sell her, they have to tape blankets over the windows because the light coming off her mind, even though she's dead, gives away her whereabouts […] Pretty soon that whole place will resemble I don't know what, probably a library, one with trees growing right through its floors up past its shelves and piercing its roof. They'll try and stop it happening; they'll move her to the next empty cave or mansion or cellar or wherever, but it doesn't matter where she is. She'll do the same to it and to the one after it and to the one after that, and so on.'
Nominated by staff at the British Film Institute as one of the ten best librarians on screen, we have to agree: Parker Posey as Mary in Party Girl is brilliant.
Arrested after throwing one too many illegal parties in her rented New York apartment and bailed out by her librarian godmother Judy, Mary starts work as a library clerk. At first flummoxed by the Dewey Decimal System and by requests for books whose titles she mishears (Darwin's Origin of Species is 'oranges and peaches' – to which she directs the borrower to the cooking anthologies), an encounter with an attractive, intelligent Lebanese falafel seller plus an increasing dissatisfaction with her chaotic life, results in an unexpected desire to learn and excel in her new work. Flipping the normal narrative on its head, it becomes clear that Mary is being seduced into the horn-rim glasses and artfully tousled bun, rather than out of them, while still managing to maintain her camp, mid-nineties, club-kid/diva credentials. She's alighted on a fact we've always known: being a librarian is one of the coolest jobs around.
Frivolous,fun, and almost entirely inconsequential, the Los Angeles Times review from June 9, 1995, puts it perfectly: 'Party Girl has the courage of its own no-braininess'. One thing's for sure: while we can't foresee watching the whole film again, we will definitely be repeat-viewing Mary's incredible late night dance party alone in the stacks as she gets to grips with the filing system.
Have you ever come across a book in a charity shop or on your grandmother's bookshelves and after reading wondered why such a gem was not more widely known? No fear, Nicola Beauman and her team at Persephone Books are on the case. Committed to reprinting neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century women writers (although a few men do make an appearance), their primary criteria is that they be what Beauman calls 'a good read'. Speaking to Sarah Lyall for The New York Times earlier this year, she qualifies: 'The connection between them is that they were forgotten and they're very well-written. I'm very keen on story and on page-turners. When I get to the end of a book I like to put it down and feel absolutely wrenched by what I've read, to be in a different world.'
Originally a mail-order publishing business with a list of 12 books, Persephone now has 132 in its catalogue with new ones added each year. Books can still be purchased via mail-order (even offering 'A Book a Month' subscription service if that appeals), online, or at their shop on Lamb's Conduit Street in London't literary Bloomsbury. Hurrying in from the rain on the day we visited, we are immediately in its thrall: the natural woods and artfully cluttered walls offset by the trademark elegant grey covers of each Persephone title. Books are displayed in stacks or fanned out with their endpapers on display: each one a unique vintage print which hints at the life and colour within.
Persephone Books, 59 Lamb's Conduit Street, WC1N 3NB. Open Monday to Friday, 10-6, Saturday, 11-5, Sunday, 12-4.
(And don't forget their treasure trove of a website – particularly the regular Letter penned by Beauman. Since discovering it, we've been devouring its archives).