The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Published by Simon & Schuster on October 16th, 2018
Genres: History, Non-Fiction
“The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”
Non-fiction is always a hit or miss for me. I either hate the book or like it. I almost never fall completely head over heels for it. But it has happened once before with The Radium Girls by Kate Moore. And now it’s happened again with The Library Book.
The Library Book takes a look at the mysterious circumstances around the morning of April 29, 1986: who set fire to the Los Angeles Public Library that destroyed more than 400,000 books. And why did they do it? Orlean uses this terrible event as a lens through which to tell the story of all libraries — their history, their meaning, and their future as they adapt and redefine themselves in a digital world.
Let me be perfectly clear: this is not a true crime book. For some reason, a lot of the marketing messaging around this book sells it as a whodunit story. So if you go into this book believing that, well, you’re going to be very disappointed.
Having said that, I absolutely adored The Library Book. It reads as around 40 percent dedicated to the history of the LA library system, 40 percent devoted to what the LA library and libraries in general do today, and about 20 percent focused on the 1986 fire.
Above all, this book is a love letter to libraries and the characters who maintain this safe space for people to use in communities around the world. I found the history sections to be fascinating, but I also enjoyed getting to know the modern LA library. Orlean interviews various staff members, and it was a delight to see into the lives of people who are hopeful and enthusiastic about their work.
Orlean chose interesting people to write about, but it’s her beautiful writing that stands out to me. The descriptions of the fire, the librarians’ reactions, and the many volunteers who helped made it feel like Orlean was reporting in real time. Her writing is lush and filled with metaphors, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
“They formed 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, the people of Los Angeles formed a living library. They created, for that 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.”
Orlean does delve into Harry Peak’s story, the man who was arrested but never charged with starting the fire. She interviews friends, family, and acquaintances to paint a picture of a man who relished in the attention that lying gave him. To be honest, learning about Peak was the least enjoyable part of the book. It was frustrating to read about this man whose lies kept getting bigger and grander. But I understand why Orlean had to discuss his life and add it to the narrative of the LA library.
“Destroying a library is a kind of terrorism. People think of libraries as the safest and most open places in society. Setting them on fire is like announcing that nothing, and nowhere, is safe.”
I didn’t expect to be so touched by Orlean’s love of libraries and her early experiences of going to the library as a young child with her mother. Her reminiscing made me remember my own history with the public library in the neighborhood where I grew up. In elementary school, our teachers would take us on a walk to check out storytime and to take out whatever books we wanted.
My family would often go to the library to pick up books that would fill the car up and then head across the street to the community centre to play foosball or pool.
I would recommend this book to anyone who’s a bookworm. It will reignite your appreciation for books and the one place where everyone had access to reading. If you grew up spending time at the library, you’ll love this too. It’s an ode to librarians and libraries, both of which represent the fabric of our society in so many ways.
“A book feels like a thing alive in this moment, and also alive in a continuum, from the moment the thoughts about it first percolated in the writer’s mind to the moment it sprang off the printing press—a lifeline that continues as someone sits with it and marvels over it, and it continues on, time after time after time.”
This satisfies my goal of reading one non-fiction book a month. If you have any suggestions for other non-fiction reads, please let me know!