Book Review: The Library Book, Susan Orlean
Nonfiction: The Library Book, Susan Orlean
I read The Library Book without knowing a lot about it. For instance, I had no idea that author Susan Orlean was such a wonderful observer of humanity. She describes a patron in “one of the carrels in history, a man in a pin-striped suit who had books on his desk but wasn’t reading held a bag of Doritos under the lip of the table. He pretended to muffle a cough each time he ate a chip.”
I did not realize how passionate she was for libraries in general. She describes them as “a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality, in the library, we can live forever.”
The Library Book focuses on a singular event in the life of one library. The 1986 fire in the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library destroyed literally millions of books, microfiche, photographs, magazines, and other documents and records. Much of the damage was irreplaceable. The event itself did not get the national publicity warranted for a simple reason: it occurred on the same day as the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Still, it was the largest library fire in US history.
Orlean spends a lot of time looking at the possible cause of the fire, the effects, the aftermath, and the person ultimately blamed for starting the fire (he was never formally charged due to a lack of evidence). But she also looks at the history of the library and of libraries in general, and brings the story to the present and the future of libraries.
I cannot tell you how much I love this book. I am a sucker for libraries, and the library branch she mentions early in the book, Studio City, is very few miles from the North Hollywood branch we patronized during our brief sojourn in Los Angeles. Even though we lived in LA while they were rebuilding the main branch after the fire, I do not recall being fully aware of the devastation of the fire, so this book taught me a lot about a library in a town I lived in during the time frame when I lived there.
More than libraries, though, I am a sucker for a great book. This is a wonderful, amazing book. Susan Orlean’s choice of characters, her spot-on descriptions, and her engaging storytelling style makes this read more like a novel than a nonfiction narrative. I could read this book again and again, and probably get more out of it each time I started.
Some of the characters are the leaders of the LA Public Library. One of the leaders literally walked to Los Angeles from Ohio! After becoming the head of the library, he became known for his passionate advocacy for the library, his zeal in expanding the library’s collection and services…and his messy affairs which led to his divorce. In the early 1900s, this made news headlines, even in LA. A future librarian was so keen on reading that she advised people to fib their way out of social engagements so they could instead stay home and read a novel in a single gulp “like a boa constrictor.”
Apparently in Senegal the polite way to refer to someone’s passing is to say, “his or her library has burned.” Their stories have ended, their chapters are closed. What a beautiful and appropriate metaphor! The Library Book is full of bon mots like that. Not many nonfiction books can make you laugh and cry and sigh and feel better about life after reading them. Susan Orlean has accomplished all of that and more.
We of www.scintilla.info LOVE libraries, especially our local library, www.schlowlibrary.org. Almost every book we’ve reviewed has been borrowed from Schlow and is part of their collection. Like every library we’ve ever visited, they have helpful friendly people, they know almost everything, and they can put their hands on any book you would ever need or want.
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