THE LIBRARY BOOK
If I still worked in a bookstore, and should you ask for a good read I would grab a copy of Susan Orlean’s latest and shout, “You’ve got to read The Library Book!”
The author set out to learn what she could about the April 1986 fire that did a fair job of consuming the Los Angeles Central Library. Was it arson? Was the right person arrested? It’s not only Orlean’s expected prowess as a journalist (who else could write bestsellers about orchids and Rin Tin Tin?), it is also her ability to keep her readers asking for more each time her curiosity takes another turn that makes this book special.
Yes, we want to know if the quirky Harry Peak (wannabe actor and habitual fabricator) really did or did not set the fire, but as Orlean branches out into a range of other topics tied to libraries, we also want to know about the physics of fire and especially exactly how a book burns. If you are a science geek, she will not disappoint. More science is found in the field of book restoration. On the other hand, just as interesting is Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Fireman, and its impact on the reading world when it morphed into Fahrenheit 451.
Orlean’s attachment to books and libraries is deeply rooted in her warmly remembered days spent with her mother on their many trips to her local library, a branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library system in Cleveland, Ohio. For all the many directions taken in The Library Book, Orlean never strays too far from the disastrous fire of 1986. But you also learn about the building’s history, its legacy of pioneering women librarians and their politically motivated removal, the library’s ground-breaking architecture, and its increasing lack of fire protection. Firemen, and how such fires are fought (no spoiler here, but I was surprised to find a hotlink between firefighters and arsonists) leads us to wonder if we readers are safe in our libraries.
Orlean does not shy away from the state of our modern libraries relative to the state of communication through the internet and its warehousing of information no librarian could ever have imagined. Will public libraries, as dreamed by Scottish-American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, become an anachronistic page of our past? Orlean does an outstanding job of speaking to this subject.
I suspect that many of us would be astounded at the services offered by the women and men who devote their lives to the belief that free access to information, events, classes, and much more offered at our public libraries is the bedrock of a civilized society. Susan Orlean’s The Library Book is not to be missed. When you finish the book, head to your nearest library and acquaint yourself with a future worth supporting and then join a Friends of the Library organization in support of your local library branch. – Sunny Solomon
Also available by Susan Orlean: The Orchid Thief; Rin Tin Tin; The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup; My Kind of Place; Saturday Night; Lazy Little Loafers; Red Sox and Bluefish: And Other Things that Make New England New England; The Floral Ghost; Throw Me a Bone.
Also reviewed by Ann Ronald.