Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Susan Orleans' The Library Book; a peek into the Central Library of the Los Angeles public library system, and the fire that devastated it in 1986. I was charmed and completely engaged in reading this ode to libraries, librarians, and the special, magical space libraries have in our culture. 

Susan Orleans brings her childhood memories of visiting her public library with her mother to the forefront, and that spark is reignited when she herself brings her son to a branch of the Central Library in Los Angeles. It's been a few years, but she immediately reconnects to her sense of wonderment and downright love of public libraries. That, and her interest in learning more about the mysterious 1986 fire set her off on her latest book project. 

 This fire that destroyed 400,000 books and damaged hundreds of thousands more; this fire that destroyed irreplaceable collections of early Los Angeles history; this fire that sent librarians into deep depressions as they processed their grief-yes, their grief--it was a major unsolved crime; was it ever solved?

 It's not just the fire that Susan Orleans examines, although it is a major player in this book. We get the best history of libraries in Los Angeles; full of quirky characters, odd balls, tough ladies working in what was considered a man's world (yes, libraries didn't even allow women to enter for quite some time!), and a history of early Los Angeles--this was by far my favorite part of the book. The sheer size of the Central library--along with the dozens of branches spread throughout Los Angeles--it boggles my mind how many people are required to run it every day, the sheer size of the collections, and the constant stream of patrons waiting to enter when the doors open at 10 AM.

Anyone who thinks libraries are not important today are simply clueless. Libraries are constantly changing to meet the demands of the public; they remain one of the few places around that welcome all-the homeless, the rich, the middle class, the poor, the illiterate, the well-educated. Those people who have nowhere else to go-libraries are a place to feel safe. And who wouldn't feel safe, surrounded by all those wonderful minds in all those books and materials just waiting to be picked up and examined? And it's all free. And there are people there who will help you with whatever information or resources you need. 

I loved reading the history of libraries in Los Angeles. I'm always interested in early LA and California, and this book offers a unique slice of it. It's a glimpse of the development of a library system that started from a very small space with a few books to a massive, sprawling system that serves millions of people, and all the challenges that were overcome in between. What's most interesting are the different talents each city librarian brought to the job over the first 100+ years of the LA library system. There is always work to be done. 

If you're a lover of books, or a librarian, buy this book. The inside covers make it look like a library book. You'll be fascinated by Harry Peak, the man who was suspected of starting the fire at Central Library. You'll be interested in what unfolds, and if he actually did it. He's just another quirky character in the life of the library. Most importantly, I hope, for you-that this will stir that desire to explore, read, and imagine that sometimes gets lost in our day to day world. Sit down and read a book. Wander the library stacks. Check out the website of your local library. Attend a program. It's all there, waiting for you. 

Rating: 5/6 for an engaging, delightful read about a horrible fire that could have ended the life of one library, but instead brought together a community to restore what was lost. Also a history of the Los Angeles library system-trust me, it's pretty interesting! 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 


  1. Oh, so happy to read your review of this book!! It has been on my radar ever since I listened to an NPR interview with the author about this book. It's on my reading wishlist. Thank you!

  2. I must read this. I use almost every library system in the Los Angeles area including the LAPL, as we call it. There is a branch just 5 minutes from my house. Great review!