THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orlean

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“A constant pleasure to read…Everybody who loves books should check out The Library Book.” —The Washington Post


A dazzling love letter to a beloved institution—and an investigation into one of its greatest mysteries—from the bestselling author hailed as a “national treasure” by The Washington Post.

On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.

In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.

Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.

Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.

This is a book beloved by librarians, to no one’s great surprise. On the other hand, I didn’t love it. Yes, it is an interesting story but I was not a fan of the writing. The book jumps all over the place, not moving back in forth in time but back, forth, sideways, back, forward, back, sideways, etc. It was dizzying at time. Why am I reading about this library director, I read about her several chapters ago. Now here is more info on another library director. I found it hard to get into this book and if my book group hadn’t picked it, forcing me to finish it, it would have been in my did-not-finish-and-certainly-not-reviewed pile. Yet here I am.

I started this book a few months before it came out. I put it down and picked it up several times, usually after reading a good review somewhere. But honestly, I don’t think a book written about librarians and libraries is ever going to get a bad review, at least not from the librarians who review for the journals like Booklist, Library Journal, Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. On the other hand, I don’t have any restrictions.

It wasn’t a horrible book; the story was interesting, at least from what I could piece together. I read it over many months so I admit to forgetting some stuff as I went along. But I didn’t care enough to go back and reread any of it. I love libraries and usually like reading about them. I missed the story about this fire to begin with, as did most people as it happened the same day as Chernobyl, which pretty much guaranteed it would be a non-story. What Orlean does is take the story of the fire and interweave it with the history of the library, going back a few hundred years. But it was just too jumpy for me, I would have preferred a chronological telling leading up to the fire and beyond. I didn’t get that. For what it’s worth, I didn’t care for Orlean’s bestselling The Orchid Thief, either, and never finished reading it. And that book was also beloved and was even made into a very strange movie called Adaptation.

4/19 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™

THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orlean. Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (October 16, 2018). ISBN 978-1476740188. 336p.



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