Monday, July 13, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

In my continuing effort to read some of the neglected books on my shelf, I pulled out The Library Book by Susan Orlean. This was a Christmas present in 2018. So it’s a fairly new “old” book.

Essentially a love letter to libraries, the book uses the Los Angeles Central Library as its focal point, spinning the story around a fire that devastated the building and its contents in April 1986. The fire burned for over 7 hours, destroyed four hundred thousand books, and damaged seven hundred thousand more. There were many irreplaceable books and objects in their special collections. For any library lover, reading about the tragedy, “watching” it unfold, can cause a visceral reaction. For the librarians, patrons, and Los Angeles’ citizens, it was a nightmare.

Orlean starts with the fire, but then goes back in time to trace out the history of the library and expand into the history of libraries more generally. We get a journalistic look into how large city libraries are run and how they function in communities. The mission of the public library has changed over time from being a repository of books to being more inclusive community centers.

Paralleling the examination of libraries, Orlean examines the life history of the only person accused as the likely arsonist, Harry Peak. No conclusion can be drawn as to his guilt or innocence, which is frustrating, but it allows the author to examine the socioeconomic environment of Los Angeles as well as theories of arson–the psychology of arsonists and the changing field of arson investigation.

The book is interesting and clearly written, but a bit of a slow read. It’s not a page-turner; the search for a possible arsonist does not have a tense who-dunnit feel, but that wasn’t the point of it. There is a lot of digression, all circling back to the library. The scope is broad but somewhat shallow. The book works as an ode to libraries and to librarians, and those who share the author’s love of libraries will be drawn to The Library Book.