Susan Orlean, “The Library Book”

I’m biased. I’m the son of two librarians. My father worked to connect libraries via computers in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He worked at MIT in Cambridge on something called Information Transfer Experiments. Project INTREX. He was the first executive director of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science in 1971. He died in 1979. My mother worked in executive libraries and was director of libraries at a small college. Plus, she read books like the rest of us drink water. The home library, when she died in 1986, was enormous. Okay, voluminous.   

I grew up steeped in books. And learning. And I dug libraries, too. I got the book bug early. As Susan Orlean suggests in The Library Book, libraries cast a spell. That sense of not knowing what you might discover and carry home. For free.

As with Orlean, the massive fire at the Los Angeles Central Library in 1989 didn’t really register on my news radar as a big deal at the time. There was bigger news. Specifically, what was transpiring at Chernobyl. The fire at the library happened as the same day that the Soviets reported the accident.

The Library Book catches us all up on what happened on that April 29 in downtown Los Angeles. And, with Orlean at the helm, the fire serves as a spark (er, flashpoint) for dozens of related threads and narratives from the history of the Los Angeles library system to the use of book burning as a political weapon around the world. We get glimpses of the people who manage various collections in the library (maps, photographs, etc.). We get a brief portrait of young Los Angeles writer Ray Bradbury and the development of a short story called “The Fireman” which later became the novel Fahrenheit 451. (Bradbury often wrote in the basement of a library at UCLA.)  

We get a thoughtful discussion on how libraries manage the homeless and security in general. We learn about book thefts. We learn about how libraries were once a male-dominated work environment and gradually shifted to females. We get a compelling history of early days of the development of the library and the swashbuckling stories that went with it. We watch reference librarians answering questions via telephone. And Orlean writes about how libraries started to innovate and embrace the abundance of free information on the internet (much sooner than you might think). 

And Orlean writes a brief chapter about how hard it is to light one single book on fire.

All these threads are niftily interwoven with the arson investigator’s ongoing work to find a culprit for the fire and, in particular, hang the case on the hapless wannabe actor Harry Peak. The arson investigation alone, and the accompanying skepticism about how difficult it is to analyze fire-related evidence, would make for a great non-fiction narrative drama. (Well, it’s pretty much all here in The Library Book.)

Peak’s story about his whereabouts on the day of the fire keeps changing—and changing again. And he finally lawyers up. And then, well, no spoilers here. The profile of Peak is fascinating. Orlean tracks her own thinking about Peak’s level of guilt, too, and shows us her thought process, the same kind of curious mind that led her down so many rabbit holes that come together here.

The best thing about The Library Book, in my biased opinion, is that it makes a case for library health as a measure of a community’s openness. Libraries encourage open minds. They encourage wonder. And exploration.

“Destroying a library is a kind of terrorism,” Orlean writes. “People think of libraries as the safest and most open places in society. Setting them on fire is like announcing that nothing, and nowhere, is safe … Books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books. Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself is no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the community between its past and its future is ruptured.”

Well said. My parents would have heartily agreed.


Previously reviewed:

Rin Tin Tin

2 responses to “Susan Orlean, “The Library Book”

  1. I still remember shivering with excitement when I got my first library card. I love libraries. That said, as you write, there is a lot packed into this. I finished it, I think, but had to push myself, and very little stayed with me – until you mentioned pieces in your review.

  2. Pingback: 2022: Top Books | Don't Need A Diagram

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