The Library Book
By Susan Orlean
Reviewed by Courtney Nguyen, Reference Librarian
Fire. Stolen books. Lawsuits. Threats of eviction. Lack of funding.
Susan Orlean writes about nearly everything that a library fears in The Library Book, her fascinating and deeply researched account of the 1986 fire that destroyed the Central Public Library of Los Angeles. Like the best modern public libraries, Orlean’s extraordinary book is difficult to define: The Library Book is a true crime story of an unsolved arson case from the 1980s; a chronicle of the Los Angeles Public Library and her colorful directors, librarians, and patrons; a study of the evolving role of the library in American society; and a memoir of a lifelong reader and library patron. The sprawling cast of characters includes an aspiring actor with a penchant for lying (and perhaps fire); an eighteen-year-old female library director whose father had to walk her home from work because of her age; and a librarian who sneakily read “dangerous” books kept locked in a metal cage in the basement during her lunch break. All of these elements and more come together to form a sweeping panorama of the public library’s unique place in the community and people’s lives.
Just as a library contains different subjects and genres to appeal to a wide audience, so too does Orlean offer something for everyone by looking at the fire and the institution of libraries from various and oftentimes surprising angles. The chapter devoted to the actual April 29, 1986 blaze rivals the intensity of any action film, while her sobering examination of the practice of book burning frames the fire in a new devastating light. Orlean’s search for the possible arsonist is as riveting as any true crime serial, and her journalism background moves to the forefront as she follows suspects, detectives, firemen, city attorneys, and those charged with dealing with the aftermath of the destruction. Library enthusiasts can delight in the (often cheeky) card catalog headings that open each chapter before reading about the inner workings of a modern public library and what librarians actually do all day. Orlean’s book also serves as a history of the library and Los Angeles from the 1800s to the present-day, for a history of a public library will inevitably also be a history of a city and a community.
Orlean writes that “[A] library is as much a portal as it is a place—it is a transit point, a passage.” The same could be said of her book, which serves as both a record of fires and eccentric librarians as well as a portal to thinking about the importance and future of libraries. The book makes a strong case for the idea that libraries are embedded in a city physically and mentally—physically in the form of the actual buildings as well as through the constant transportation of library materials to the different branches, running like veins through the city; and mentally in the knowledge they guard and the memories they hold for both lifelong and casual patrons. Perhaps we are biased, but The Library Book is essential reading for everyone in any community. Find this book in its natural habitat at a public library today, including ours.