The Library Book, by Susan Orlean. Book report #16 (2019)

The Library Book, by Susan Orlean. Pub 2018

This was my first reading of Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief) in book form. I’ve read a few pieces by her in The New Yorker, but never a whole book. What I have I been waiting for?

Starting out as bit of mystery, exploring a devastating fire at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, Orlean explores: the history of libraries in the US; the history of this specific library, including its design, architecture and construction; libraries as a part of Western culture and civilization; the endurance of libraries. Throughout, she combines masterfully journalistic and personal essay styles to create a captivating and touching homage to the library. Her turns of phrase are both beautiful and haunting:

On the 1986 fire: it ”…curled up in the northeast stacks, where it glowed angrily, feeding itself book after book, a monster snacking on chips.”

On life in LA in the 80s: “In Los Angeles, moments were fortune cookies ready to be cracked open…”

On the act of destroying libraries: “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…Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared…”

From a notice that librarians inserted into “bad books”, circa the 50s: “This book is of the worst class…we are sorry that you have not had any better sense than to read it.”

I enjoyed this book very much. The chapters move back and forth from the fire mystery to the history of libraries to Orlean’s own experiences of libraries. It is a fascinating tale of a place both familiar and new. The history of librarian as career, especially as career for women, then becoming male dominated, and then as a gender-neutral industry, was also fascinating.

3 – a book published in 2018

7 – a book by a female author

12 – a book set in a place you’ve never been (Los Angeles)

16 – a book with a place name in the title (Library)

22 – a memoir

24 – a book by an author you’ve never read

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