Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book by Susan Orlean was a thorough and interesting look at something that at first blush may not seem to lend itself to a compelling narrative, however she very much succeeds with the effort. Orlean centers the book around the Los Angeles Central Library and a devastating fire that swept through it in 1986 and also covers what libraries have been through history, what they are today, and what they mean to her.

About the fire, which burned for seven hours, with more than one million books burned or damaged and almost every firefighter in Los Angeles called to fight it, Orlean wrote an amazing description, as if she was there and narrating it, of how the fire reached a point where it had exactly enough air available to consume everything in its reach, and burned in a colorless or pale blue hue. Additionally, she covered the investigation into the cause of the fire, with people focusing in on a particular suspect in the compelling serial liar and attention seeker Harry Peak.

Orlean also wrote heavily on the history of both the Los Angeles Central Library and libraries in general and their import in the world, with how in war or with a tyrannical regime, destroying books a way to show people you can take from them. About libraries today, she wrote of them as something that provides in addition to books, access to pictures, music, maps, classes, and services for the community, including a place to go for the homeless, which makes their presence there and reaction to them important. Additionally, Orlean writes well about librarians, many of whom love the places and are second-generation library workers.

The book includes a fair amount of compelling first-person writing, with Orlean writing on taking her son to the library, just as her mother took her, and how she chose to write the book to help preserve that memory of her. She then wrote of memories and the permanence of books and words, noting that in Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned, and how if some of that metaphorical library can be shared, it takes on a life of it's own. With The Library Book, Orlean serves as a wordsmith crafting great narrative and provides a deep-dive homage for people who like books, libraries, community, and interesting stories of the everyday.