Book Review: The Library Book

library-book-medTitle: The Library Book
Author: Susan Orlean
Genre: Nonfiction History & True Crime
Publisher: Simon Schuster
Publication Date: October 16, 2018
Pages: 318
Format Read: Kindle ebook
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: NetGalley
Date Finished Reading: January 12, 2019

Goodreads Description: 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.

My Review: I loved this book for many reasons, but the biggest reason is that it felt like a love letter to libraries with a side true crime story. Like a true nonfiction writer, Susan Orlean dives into the history of the Los Angeles Public Library. This helps you visualize the importance of this building as a staple in the Los Angeles community. Then she follows this up by relating the details of the Los Angeles Public Library fire, from interviews with staff, who worked at the library at that time, to the entire process of cleaning up and rebuilding after the fire. Like so many people I have talked to about this book, I was not aware of the 1986 fire, and as far as I am aware, this book is the only literature out there that discussing this historical event in detail. What I found really interesting was the section that described how the water-damaged books were recovered and restored and the methods used to do so. It was somewhat a relief to know that at least some books were saved.

Just as I am sure it was hard for the author, it was equally hard for the reader to read about the author’s experience burning a book, but the visual was important. I do agree that choosing Fahrenheit 451 was appropriate too. As hard as it was to read about one book being burned, how could anyone set a whole building of books on fire?!!! The author investigates the theories of suspects, as this crime is still unsolved. She gives us background into Harry Peak, who was a suspect, including interviews with people who knew Harry.

She really wants you to care about the Los Angeles Public Library fire and care about libraries in general. The author describes in detail the daily tasks of librarians. No…it is not just shelving books. I learned first hand a few years back when I took a temporary job working in my local public library. Libraries have always been important to me and continue to be a special place that I love to visit. When I received an opportunity to work in one, I couldn’t help but think: “Dream job!”. Like I said though, it was not just shelving books, it was helping members of our community. I spent a lot of time helping library patrons navigate sites on the computer when they were trying to apply for jobs and many other important tasks. We were also one of the first buildings in our community to open up after a hurricane caused tornado and massive flood damage to most of our area. We opened to provide library patrons with computer access to start applying for FEMA aid. I had never had to do such a thing in my life, but I quickly tried to learn how the FEMA system worked, so I could help as many people as possible. Those were such rewarding moments, when you know that you are truly helping people in need. However, my favorite moment in the library was when someone came up to me and asked me to help her find some Jane Austen books. I am a huge Jane Austen fan, and I was so excited to get that question. I could then follow-up with a question of whether she wanted works by Jane Austen, books about Jane Austen or Jane Austen inspired fan fiction. My enthusiasm must have been contagious, because the patron smiled and said, “How about all of the above.” That one-on-one relationship and service is so important. Yes…as stated in the book, I also got my share of unusual phone calls. For example, there was an individual who would call the library almost every day, give us a word, and ask us to use that word in a sentence.

Libraries do not just provide books, but they provide services. I am glad that this author brought to our attention a historical event unknown to most of us, that also expresses the importance of libraries. I highly recommend this read!

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦