For those of us who grew up with a local library as our portal to the world, Susan Orlean's The Library Book is a gem.
In this work, she combines the history of the Los Angeles Central Library, her love of libraries and books from her mother bringing her to the local library as a child, the mechanisms of the devastating 1986 fire that destroyed or damaged over a million books in several hours, and the connection of the L.A. library system to the community it serves into an immensely readable story that will bring back memories and challenge us to support our libraries as they change in a technological world.
A book about libraries, you say? Sounds dull. Not so with Orlean’s ability to weave a whodunit into the cause of the fire, with vignettes about the sometimes wacky patrons and employees at the L.A. libraries, and a beautiful look at the commitment of the city and the local community to rescue books during the fire and to rebuild the library.
In spite of the L.A. library fire being one of the largest library fires in U.S. history, I hadn’t heard of the fire in the news when it happened. Almost forgotten in the shadow of the Chernobyl disaster coverage, the L.A. library fire story is one that has lain asleep waiting to be rediscovered, until Susan Orlean awakens it and brings it to life.
One of the most compelling chapters to me is when Orleans burns a book to see what the arsonist would have seen and felt on that day. She found preparing to burn a book a challenge, as she has never been able to do harm to a book, just as throwing a living thing away repulses her. She describes a book as having a soul, alive on a continuum to its readers. Her devotion to books and libraries is obvious to the reader throughout The Library Book.
Some people insist that the printed book is on its way out to make way for electronic media. But this book shows just the opposite -- the library can and will be a central place in the community and the books contained therein will continue to connect us all to the past, help us to understand our place in the present, and prepare us all for what’s to come.