Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

On the morning of April 28, 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?

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.

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.

Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.

Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.

After that lengthy synopsis, I’m not sure what else there is to say, other than to talk about my experience reading this book.

The short version is — I loved it.

Susan Orlean is a brilliant writer, new to me, although I’ve been hearing about The Orchid Thief for years and always meant to get to it (and after finishing The Library Book, finally bought myself a copy). The story here is fascinating and multi-layered. The framing device of the book is the 1986 Los Angeles library fire, which is devastating and horrifying to read about, as the author takes us practically minute by minute through the fire’s path and shows us the awful damage done during those terrible hours.

Interspersed with the story of the fire is a history of the role of libraries in society, focusing mainly (but not exclusively) on the history of the library in Los Angeles, showing the library as a reflection of the society it serves, its challenges and its triumphs. We see how public libraries have evolved over time, and how those who work in libraries are devoted both to serving the public and to keeping public libraries vital and vibrant, even as society and technology constantly change and provide fresh challenges to the concept of what a library actually is.

We also meet amazing people, past and present, who played a part in the Los Angeles library, from head librarians to architects to security guards. It’s amazing to see the incredible talent and intelligence and humor of the people who helped build the library system and who continue to keep it relevant and important.

The story of Harry Peak is the most puzzling piece of the book — an unsuccessful actor who was suspected of the arson, but whose constantly shifting stories and alibis made any sort of case against him questionable at best. He’s an odd person, and so much is uncertain — but it’s interesting to see how his strange life intersected with such a major civic disaster.

Susan Orlean’s writing is gorgeous. Like the best non-fiction, it flows and captivates, and I never for a moment felt bored or like I was reading a dusty, dry history book.

On visiting a boarded-up, abandoned branch library:

This building made the permanence of libraries feel forsaken. This was a shrine to being forgotten; to memories sprinkled like salt; ideas vaporized as if they never had been formed; stories evaporated as if they had no substance and no weight keeping them bound to the earth and to each of us, and most of all, to the yet-unfolded future.

Other memorable (or just entertaining) lines and passages:

In times of trouble, libraries are sanctuaries.

In the year leading up to Prohibition, when the ban on alcohol seemed inevitable, every book about how to make liquor at home was checked out, and most were never returned.

[Althea] Warren was probably the most avid reader who ever ran the library. She believed librarians’ single greatest responsibility was to read voraciously. Perhaps she advocated this in order to be sure librarians knew their books, but for Warren, this directive was based in emotion and philosophy: She wanted librarians to simply adore the act of reading for its own sake, and perhaps, as a collateral benefit, they could inspire their patrons to read with a similarly insatiable appetite. As she said in a speech to a library association in 1935, librarians should “read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training, but because they’d rather do it than anything else in the world.”

The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.

The Library Book is simply a delicious read, perfect for anyone who appreciates finely detailed research, expressive writing, and a passion for books and libraries. I loved this book, and can’t wait to give copies to a whole bunch of book-obsessed friends.


The details:

Title: The Library Book
Author: Susan Orlean
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 317 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Source: Gift (yay!)