Ron Charles of The Washington Post wrote, “You can’t help but finish The Library Book and feel grateful that these marvelous places belong to us all.” This quote from Charles’ review of Susan Orlean’s The Library Book is an excellent way to begin a review of an excellent book.
Orlean writes with such passion, knowledge, and care that I read most of the book in one day and finished it the next day. Orlean describes library visits with her mother when Orlean was a child. The pair would go into Bertram Woods branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library system, their neighborhood library in Cleveland. Immediately, the two would separate and then reunite at the checkout counter, each with her own books.
Orlean writes “our visits to the library were never long enough for me. The place was so beautiful. I loved wandering around the bookshelves, scanning the spines until something happened to catch my eye. Those visits were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived.” This description shows Orlean’s love of the library, books, and reading, so readers immediately trust her.
When Orlean moves to Los Angeles, she learns of the 1986 fire which raged for seven hours and thirty-eight minutes. She was living in NY at the time and had no memory of even hearing about the fire in Los Angeles. However, at the time of the fire, April 29, 1986, another world event took the headlines in NY papers: Soviet Announces Nuclear Accident at Electric Plan, Mishap Acknowledged After Rising Radiation Levels Spread to Scandinavia.
The New York Times does mention the Los Angeles library fire on April 30 on page A14.
When the fire alarm first sounded, librarians, staff, and patrons simply walked outside, thinking another false alarm had sounded. Most people left their belongings in the library because they expected the all clear to be sounded soon and they would return to their spots.
Michael Lewis, New York Times, writes “the 1986 fire inside the Central Library, and the subsequent, inconclusive investigation of it, turn out to be a MacGuffin, a trick for luring the reader into a subject into which the reader never imagined he’d [or she’d] be lured: the history and present life of the Los Angeles Central Library.” That is exactly what Orlean does, lures the readers into learning about the fire and then turns the story on end to provide a history of the Los Angeles library system.
Orlean provides background on librarians of the past and present. Mary Foy, for example, became the youngest person to head the Los Angeles Public Library; she was eighteen and a female in a time when men primarily ruled the library. Readers also learn about polymath C.J.K. Jones, billed as “The Human Encyclopedia.”
Orlean devotes a great deal of space in the book to Charles Lummis who is hard to describe in a few sentences. For example, when Lummis got the job as head of the Los Angeles Libraries, many people objected saying “Lummis did not have any experience or training in the management of a library.” Lummis also had a tumultuous personal life which included multiple marriages, divorces, and extra-marital affairs which included a daughter born out of wedlock.
Mary Jones, the head of the library whom Lummis was set to replace, refused to give up her job. The dispute continued for some time before the library board moved from asking Jones to resign to firing her, forcing her out of the job.
Another librarian of importance is Althea Warren who told librarians at a convention in 1935 that librarians should “read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training, but because they’d rather do it than anything else in the world.” Warren also published tip sheets, “Althea’s ways to Achieve Reading.” These tip sheets offered encouraging ways for people to find time for reading.
Warren wanted to find ways to boost reading in all ages. When she took over leadership of the Los Angeles Library system, children had to be in third grade or above to have a library card. She declared any child who could “sign his or her name” could have a library card.
The Library Book offers readers history, scandal, and a mystery about the fire itself. Orlean writes with such engaging prose that anyone interested in books and libraries will be fascinated by the sweeping story of the Los Angeles Library system.
Orlean writes about the fire and loss of books: “The deepest effect of burning books is emotional. When libraries burn, the books are sometimes described as ‘wounded’ or as ‘casualties,’ just as human beings would be.”
Another quote from The Library Book haunts me with its truth: “In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.”
Oh, yes, and Orlean devotes her research to finding out as much as she can about Harry Peak, the man accused of setting the 1986 fire. Did Peak start the fire? Did someone else start it? Was it an accident, caused by faulty wiring? Read The Library Book.
Near the end of The Library Book, Orlean writes about visiting the library late in the day, near closing time when it was quiet. She describes the library in this quiet time: “The silence was more soothing than solemn. A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off the shelf to know there is voice inside that is waiting to speak to you.”
Read The Library Book and share it with a fellow reader!
Susan Orlean’s Web site: http://www.susanorlean.com/.