July 15, 2019

Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean re-opens the unsolved mystery of the most catastrophic library fire in American history, and delivers a dazzling homage to a beloved institution – our libraries. On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. Raging through the stacks, the fire reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. It was the largest library fire in the history of the United States: it destroyed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more, and shut the library down for seven years. The mystery remains: did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her life-long love of books and reading with the fascinating history of libraries and the sometimes-eccentric characters who run them, award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Orlean presents a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling story. With her signature wit, insight, compassion and talent for deep research, she investigates the legendary Los Angeles Public Library fire to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives, and reveals how these buildings provide much more than just books and are needed now more than ever.

If you are undecided about reading this book, please note that the title is The Library Book not The Los Angeles Library Fire. In skimming through customer reviews, there appear to be many readers incensed that there wasn't a more lengthy exploration of the Los Angeles Public Library fire of 1986.  

Here is what the book is about in one sentence: Susan Orleans celebrates the invaluable treasure of the public library through the lens of the devastating 1986 Los Angeles Public Library Fire.  

It is not a conventional true crime book; although she does delve as deep as she can into the person charged with burning down the library, out-of-work actor (of course) Harry Peak. He is, by all accounts, a fascinating but ultimately pitiful figure. But this book is more about the Los Angeles Public Library itself, its colorful history and lively librarians.  Oh, yes, if you think librarians are dull, Orlean will prove you wrong. The Library's past is as fiery as the fire that almost burned it down to the ground. 

These stories are riveting but what I loved best and touched me more are all the ways the Library (and thus all libraries) have always been a beacon of knowledge and inclusivity - how it is truly a place that reflect of our humanity.  Not is just symbolic, poetic ways.  But in real, tangible actions.  If you've stepped foot in a public library lately, you might have noticed all the social services that intersect within its walls.  Not just a place that houses books, but a thriving community hub.  I knew all this from my own public library but the Los Angeles Public Library is on another level, quite frankly. 

If you're interested in this book it's probably because you love libraries.  The Library Book will only enforce and increase that love.  

“A book feels like a thing alive in this moment, and also alive on a continuum, from the moment the thoughts about it first percolated in the writer’s mind to the moment it sprang off the printing press – a lifeline that continues as someone sits with it and marvels over it, and continues on, time after time after time.  Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue: They take on a kind of human vitality.  The poet Milton called this quality in books “the potency of life.”

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