Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

How many of you had heard of the fire that destroyed almost half a million books and damaged several hundred thousand more at the Los Angeles Central Library? It happened on April 29, 1986, but the Chernobyl accident occurred on April 26, 1986, so the eyes of the world were focused on that earlier accident. But, Susan Orlean covers the library and the fire in  The Library Book. I'll admit, I had a difficult time with the first thirty-nine pages. I had to quit, and come back to the book later because I found a scene too difficult to get through. The library staff had to stand outside and watch the library burn. "According to librarian Glen Creason, the breeze was filled with the smell of hearbreak and ashes."

Although Orlean begins with the fire, the subsequent investigation, and the suspicion that a man named Harry Peak started the fire, there's so much more in the book. She covers the history of the Los Angeles Central Library, the eccentric and practical librarians who managed the building, the building itself, and some of the current staff and customers. She also mentions the campaign to raise funds to replace the lost books, valued at fourteen million dollars.

Orlean has done her research. She not only deals with the history of the Los Angeles Public Library, she's written a history of libraries, and discusses the future of libraries. She treats all of the staff, the customers, and the characters that circle throughout the building's history, with a great deal of respect.

As with so many other people who love public libraries, Orlean's love was instilled by her mother. Several times, she mentions her trips to the library with her mother. She says her mother always said if she could have chosen any profession in the world, she would have been a librarian.

The Library Book may have started out as an exploration of a mystery. What happened and who set the fire that burned the Los Angeles Central Library? But, Orlean's book became deeper and more compassionate than just one fire and one library. It became a search for the purpose and value of libraries. Why do people use and cherish libraries? In examining that second question, Susan Orlean has told the story of a love and respect for knowledge and information, a story shared worldwide.

Susan Orlean's website is

The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Simon & Schuster, 2018. ISBN 9781476740188 (hardcover), 336p.

FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.


Nann said...

Susan Orlean spoke about The Library Book at the author tea at ALA Annual. I managed to read the ARC a few weeks before publication date and kept telling my husband, "This is really good!" I enjoy her style of long-form investigative writing: there's a lot to learn about the topic and she adds so much more! And, lucky me, Library Journal sent me the audio edition to review. Orlean narrates and it's as interesting to listen to as it was to read.

Kay said...

I've got this one on audio to listen at some point - probably next year. I'll be prepared for the scene you mentioned and I was trying to think where I was in 1986 and what I was doing. Well, I had a 3-year-old, was working full-time as an auditor, husband was working full-time and also finishing his degree - yep, I was mega-busy. However, I'm glad to be able to learn more about the LA Library and also libraries in general. Thanks!

Lesa said...

Oh, that's good to know, Nann, because some readers would rather listen to the audio. Thank you!

Lesa said...

I think I had recently moved to Florida, Kay. Interesting that you tracked yourself to see what was going on in your life. It is a good book.

Sandie Herron said...

This book is up for a Best of 2018 award on Audible. I’ll be letting you know the winners as soon as they are announced, probably after Thanksgiving. While I haven’t listened to it myself, I’m glad to read about others who say it’s good.

Bonnie K. said...

I'm reading this book now. I've just started and got as far as when the author spoke with Harry's sister.