The Library Book by Susan Orlean
3 words: immersive, journalistic, investigative
You know how some books take you back to an earlier time in your life and they place you there so solidly, you can smell and taste and feel everything you experienced at the time?
This book did that for me. Because while this book ostensibly is about the terrible fire that devastated the Los Angeles Public Library, it’s really more of a deep dive into the life of a library, reported with affection and enthusiasm.
It put me right back in the heady days when I first worked in a public library — as an unpaid, 35-hour-per-week intern at a large-ish urban public library. That summer was magical — it felt like such a privilege to see how things worked behind the scenes and to be in the building before it opened and to spend time in each department. (It reminded me of that children’s book by P.D. Eastman, Are You My Mother? Each department seemed like a serious possibility, and then I reached Reference, and done. I was home.)
I am grateful to this day for that experience, and to the library director who accepted a cold call from a college junior interested in a career in librarianship and seeking work experience in a public library. Her willingness to accept me into the fold after one phone call and one meeting — it’s one of those aspects of librarianship that makes me really love this field. The generosity of spirit is a grand and beautiful thing among library people.
And that’s what this book is all about.
I kept reading aloud to the Dear Man (often after recovering from verklemptitude), because Orlean captured the library so perfectly.
“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.” (p. 37)
(This one gets me each time I read it.)
Orlean spends time with the current library staff, learning how the library operates today. And she also delves into its past, when simply being a woman was grounds for being fired so a man could take one’s job.
And she investigates the 1986 library fire, particularly the suspected arsonist, a down-on-his-luck, would-be actor who lied compulsively. And in the end… I won’t ruin the conclusion, but truly, the fire provides a framework for the story, but the real story is about the library and its people. And it’s beautiful.
“I looked around the room at the few people scattered here and there. Some were leaning into books, and a few were just resting, having a private moment in a public place, and I felt buoyed by being here. This is why I wanted to write this book, to tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine, and how that feels marvelous and exceptional.” (p. 310)
Give this book a whirl if you like… a deep dive into the life of an organization, learning about a major event that’s virtually unknown, celebrating libraries and the work of librarians, unsolved crimes
My fellow readers… Have you ever read a book that put you into a happy past moment? Or an adoring book about a library? If so, I so wanna hear about it.