Book review: The Library Book

“The people of Los Angeles formed a living library.”

Library Book.Susan OrleanThe Library Book by Susan Orlean is initially about a fire at the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library in April 1986 that incinerated over four hundred thousand books.

Why was I not familiar with this story? Maybe because it took place around the time of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

The book is about the development of the LAPL, which, invariably, reflected the growth of the city itself. Orlean describes the various characters who have been the city Librarian, some of them quite colorful. This discussion inevitably gets into gender roles in employment.

The Library Book gets into the history of libraries generally, how and why they developed, and for whom. We see the value of books and other things libraries collect, and the awful power of book burnings.

But it is mostly about the 1986 fire. Was it set by Harry Peak, a struggling actor, whose ever-contradictory stories frustrated the investigators? Was he even at the scene of the the fire, or not?

The book delves into the investigation of arson. Was the library fire set? Breakthroughs in technology makes clear that some of the fires that investigators thought were deliberately set may not have been.

It is so much about recovery, how, after the librarians there mourned the losses, the community came together fire, forming “a human chain, passing the books hand over hand from one person to the next, through the smoky building and out the door.

“It was as if, in this urgent moment, people, the people of Los Angeles formed a living library. They created for a short time, a system to protect and pass along shared knowledge, to save what we know for each other, which is what libraries do every day.”

Ultimately, The Library Book is a love letter to Susan Orlean’s mother, who taught her the wonder of libraries. That joy is contagious.

As one Goodreads writer noted, “It is in many ways a tribute to libraries and librarians and what they stand for and the importance of the library now and in the future.’

If you like your books linear, the structure of The Library Book may be a little frustrating, as it bounces among the themes. But it did not bother me at all. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. The Library Book is a lot of things, just like a library.

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