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The Library Book


The Library Book

I've been a lover of libraries my entire life. One of my earliest portals to adulthood was the bus that transported me as an adolescent from my suburban neighborhood to the public library in downtown Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I spent hours there, invariably returning home with a stack of books that spoke more to my ambitious reading appetite than it did to my capacity to consume them all by the due date. As an adult, I spent 17 years as a member of our county library board, watching that same local library expand to eight branches and the evolution of public libraries from simple book repositories to diverse information centers.

Longtime New Yorker writer Susan Orlean shares my passion for libraries. In THE LIBRARY BOOK's opening pages, she fondly remembers the visits she made as a child with her mother several times a week to the local branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library system, in the Cleveland suburbs.

Recalling those formative experiences during a visit with her own son to a branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, when she moved to that city in 2011, Orlean finally was moved to write this book after her mother entered the early stages of dementia. "I knew I was writing this because I was trying hard to preserve those afternoons," she writes. "I convinced myself that committing them to a page meant the memory was saved, somehow, from the corrosive effect of time." Orlean's parting gift to her mother, now deceased, is a lovely offering to anyone who gets a feeling that's a cross between a birthday party and Christmas morning every time they walk through the library door.

"[Orlean is] interested in much more than delivering a host of fascinating factoids. Instead, these details are marshaled skillfully in the service of a story that illuminates the vital role libraries play in educating, informing and entertaining us..."

The nominal subject of this beguiling memory preservation effort is the devastating fire that occurred at Los Angeles's 60-year-old Central Library on April 29, 1986. That blaze destroyed almost half a million books, damaged 700,000 more, and put the building out of service until 1993, after undergoing a massive rebuilding and expansion project. Some 10 months after the fire, Harry Peak, an unemployed messenger who preferred to think of himself as a part-time actor, but whose fitful efforts mostly left him "grasping at the edges of show business," was arrested for arson.

But the sad story of Harry Peak and Orlean's true crime narrative is probably the least interesting aspect of THE LIBRARY BOOK. Though her focus is the Los Angeles Public Library, an institution whose origins date back to 1859, as her book's title suggests, Orlean strives for a comprehensive look at where libraries have been and where they are going. What's astonishing is how, in barely more than 300 pages, she covers so many engrossing aspects of that vast subject as well.

Orlean traces the LAPL's colorful history from before the period in the 1880s when it was headed by an 18-year-old woman (and women were not yet allowed to have their own library cards) to the present. In her episodic telling, she displays a keen eye for some of the colorful characters who've inhabited the LAPL's stacks, like Charles Lummis, an eccentric journalist who became the city librarian in 1905, after the "Great Library War," the furor sparked by the ouster of his female predecessor.

Despite his flamboyant nickname --- "Conan the Librarian" --- the responsibilities of current Los Angeles city librarian John Szabo are diverse and often mundane. Orlean spends a day trailing Szabo, a man hired in 2012 for his reputation as someone who was "successfully rigging the library to sail into the future not as a gigantic, groaning, fusty pile of books but as a sleek ship of information and imagination," and, as she describes it, he's an exemplar of the nimble, innovative spirit libraries need to survive.

Orlean also takes advantage of extensive access to other LAPL employees, bringing the reader inside the library's various departments --- like shipping, which moves 32,000 books around the LAPL's 73 libraries five days a week, or the History Department, where the Central Library's longest tenured librarian, Glen Creason, who administers a priceless collection of maps, shared stories about patrons nicknamed Antler Man and General Hershey Bar as he reminisced about the devastating aftermath of the fire. She makes a persuasive case that the contemporary librarian often must possess a wide range of skills, from information resource to computer technician and even social worker.

Orlean is a fact-checker's nightmare. In this book, you will learn about everything from the chemical phenomenon known as a stoichiometric condition to the staggering quantity of books destroyed in major European cities in World War II to the number of people who used one of America's 17,078 public libraries and bookmobiles in the year 2010. But she's interested in much more than delivering a host of fascinating factoids. Instead, these details are marshaled skillfully in the service of a story that illuminates the vital role that libraries play in educating, informing and entertaining us, and, perhaps most importantly, in serving as institutions that help bind us together as a society, one of those increasingly rare places that "welcome everyone and don't charge any money for that warm embrace."

Susan Orlean set out to "tell about a place I love that doesn't belong to me but feels like it is mine, and how that feels marvelous and exceptional. All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library's simple unspoken promise: Here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen." She's written an enchanting book, one that I hope will sell many copies. But I can't help thinking she won't be disappointed if more than a few people decide to check THE LIBRARY BOOK out at their local public library.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on November 2, 2018

The Library Book
by Susan Orlean

  • Publication Date: October 16, 2018
  • Genres: History, Literature, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1476740186
  • ISBN-13: 9781476740188