Review: The Library Book

4.5 out of 5 stars

A book about books, to reading about reading, by one of the greatest writers of modern nonfiction. The Library Book, by Susan Orleans

In 1986, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstance caused a raging blaze at the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. One of those circumstances may have been arson. The others included overcrowded inventory, poor building management, dwindling budget, and lots of bad luck. More than a million books were damaged or destroyed. So why would any reader, presumably a lover of books, want to read about this?

The Library Book is wonderful. Susan Orlean turns her marvelous investigative writing to not only how and why the fire occurred, but to its victims: the dedicated staff, needful patrons, burgeoning city, and books themselves. From their ashes arises an absolute love letter to libraries.

The why of the fire is quite gripping, though you can do better if looking for true crime. The eventual suspect is cartoonishly circumspect, by his own design. Facts never fully supported his guilt or innocence, and in the end, neither does Orlean. It’s not the point of her story. Still, Harry Peak does have the main character energy he so diligently cultivated. His would be a fun biography to read.

The how of the fire is absolutely fascinating. Everyone from the staff who reported the fire to the firefighters on scene to arson investigators looking back over 30 years have differing opinions about what happened. Orlean brilliantly details just how fire works, making it is as alive as any action movie as it tears through the library in her prose.

Orlean also delves into the when of the fire. Los Angeles was at a crux in the mid-80s, and so many of the people flooding the city had need to the library’s myriad services. She includes a ton of context and history that I never heard in five years living there.

As for where, the library itself plays a huge role in this book. Everything from the location to the architecture is discussed, with clear love and support for those who championed the institution. The physical layout and construction of the building were also an important factor in how devastating the fire proved to be.

Even with all these plots working together, it’s the who of this book that shines brightest. The library’s historical figures stand tall, especially the women who ran and changed it at a time when women had few opportunities for such occupation. The staff, both from 1986 and present day, are seen and portrayed with such admiration that you can feel Orlean’s heart glowing for them on every page. Orlean dives deeply into the many patrons who use the library’s services: kids graduating through reading levels, the elderly, and especially the homeless, for whom the library is among the few places they can do. People learning to read, or reading to learn, many to speak English, and others for help with civil or legal matters. The library is the ultimate level playing field: everything is always free for everyone. It’s those people who make the library matter, and they matter most in this book.

Orlean refers often to the library’s importance in her own childhood. I have similar memories. I still visit the library weekly, sometimes more often. Reading about the life-changing love of reading from someone who writes it so beautifully is a true joy. The Library Book is that, and more.

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