The Library Book by Susan Orlean
My local library was my first true love, and will always remain the top place holder on my literary dance card. Growing up with a portal to unknown and enchanting worlds, only a ten-minute walk from my home was a blessing I took for granted in my early years, but is in no way lost on me now.
The nostalgia that Susan Orlean was able to elicit in The Library Book, transported me back in time to my childhood happy place. I would tear off on my bicycle and spend lazy summer days walking up and down the aisles, my eyes full of wonder at all there was to soak up about the world. It was an escape into better lands, ones filled with promise and hope, others offering solace in their dark authenticity. It was a refuge that I didn’t know I desperately needed at the time, and I’m so grateful for it when I look through the window of hindsight.
The Library Book’s focal point is the Los Angeles Public Library in downtown LA, as it chronicles the history, architecture, and most profoundly, the devastating fire that left more than 1 million books damaged or destroyed in its wake. April 29th of 2021 marked 35 years since this tragic disaster. The greatest loss to any public library in the United States history, the (first) LAPL fire was both a sad and fascinating story that begged to be told. Orlean offers us a true-crime retelling of the happenings on that fateful day in 1986, as we try to figure out why someone would do such a destructive thing to historical data, art, and literature that was as important to the citizens of LA as it was to humanity as a whole.
I enjoyed reading about the influential role libraries play in society, and how they are a hub for the young, new immigrants, and the homeless; where they can assist in education, and offer coordination for community resources. It was powerful to read about the City Librarian for Los Angeles, John Szabo, and how he had teamed up with local outreach programs, to assist his patrons, and the greater community.
Orlean had spent some time shadowing employees at the LAPL and shares with us the day-to-day of the motley cast of characters she encountered there. We get to know the people that served the position of head librarian over the years at the LAPL, learn about patrons, and community volunteers that lent their time and hearts to the teardown and restoration of the fire-damaged library. There was a long list of admirable philanthropists who donated their dollars to the costly and noble cause of its repair, celebrities included. Some participated in the Save The Books Telethon that aired to raise money for the replacement of the books that were lost in the blaze. If you’re interested, take five minutes to watch this spooky advertisement that was aired during the fundraiser.
I appreciated the intimate parallels Orlean shared, of her writing the book whilst her mother, the inspiration for her passion behind books and libraries, was fading away with dementia. I did, however, struggle with some of the excessive detail afforded some of the less interesting, fringe characters peppered throughout, and the more mundane events that were strung together to complete the timeline. At various intervals I had to really push myself to keep going. It could be that a local to LA might find these specifics more entertaining, but for this Canadian girl, it caused the story to drag on.
Overall, this was still worth the slow read for the shared library appreciation, fond memories, and some blogworthy quotes. And it was fun to web search all the LA libraries as they were mentioned along the way, just to add some visuals to the story. I love when a book has a game with it, haha. I’m not the only one that does this sort of thing, am I?