The Library Book by Susan Orlean

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I was lucky enough to be invited to the Library of Virginia Literary Awards this year. It is a wonderful night that celebrates authors from Virginia, and books that are set in the state. This year, their honored guest was Susan Orlean, and so I read her newest book The Library Book in anticipation of meeting Ms. Orlean. I can say both the book and the woman were a delight.

Here is more about The Library Book:

On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.

If I’m being honest, I’ll admit I had no idea there was a massive fire in the Los Angeles Public Library’s central branch in 1986. Just hearing about it made me nervous and intrigued. I still remember my childhood library and how cozy it was and hearing about this fire sent chills up my spine. The thought of hundreds of thousands of books burning, and the destruction and closing of a city resource made my stomach feel uneasy. Before I read the book, I’m not sure I understood intellectually what my body reacted to when hearing about this fire. Susan Orlean helps to explain that and so much more with The Library Book.

If you love books you’ll appreciate this one, it is a total treat. It reminds the reader what it is they love about books and libraries, and then it does a whole lot more. The Library Book is part true crime investigation, part how libraries work, part deep dive into Los Angeles history, and part conversation about the changing role of books and libraries in our lives. Again, if you’re a book lover, you’ll love this book.

Susan Orlean does a fantastic job of moving the book along and around, never dwelling for too long in any one moment or on any one person. This book is about the greater institution and concept of libraries, and she probes the idea of libraries from many different angles. I loved hearing about the little details of the library, like how long a book stays in circulation and the kinds of inquiries the library info desk fields. I also, predictably, loved the investigation of the 1986 fire in Los Angeles, you know, the true crime part.

There were certainly parts of this book that drifted into areas I was less interested in, however in these cases that says more about me than the book or Ms. Orlean’s writing. For the most part I was captivated by the story Orlean was expertly weaving. I didn’t know you could make a book about libraries and librarians seem exciting and fresh, but she does.

If you’re reading this blog, you most likely like books, so I would think you would appreciate if not swoon over this one. The Library Book feels like being in a hug of bookish nostalgia. If nothing else, it will remind you how important libraries are to the fabric of society, and maybe it will make you want to flaunt your library card.

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • PublisherSimon & Schuster; 1st Edition edition (October 16, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy The Library Book on Amazon

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