Susan Orlean's latest book, The Library Book, was a hot ticket at Book Expo this year. I didn't get a hard copy, which was a bummer, but I was approved for an electronic copy so I jumped for joy. And what a joy this book was.
One spring morning in 1986, a fire broke out at the main Los Angeles Public Library. It was so intense, so all-consuming that 30 years later, residents remember it well. No one knows exactly how or where it started, only that it was arson. A suspect began to emerge — a man named Harry Peak, an aspiring actor and a generally confusing man who lived to spin tall tales. Orlean, a recent Los Angeles transplant, hears about the story after re-finding her childhood love of libraries at the venerable Los Angeles institution. Part narrative non-fiction, part historical record of the Los Angeles Public Library, and part love letter to libraries everywhere, this book focuses in on a place we all know and love yet rarely dig deep into: the oublic library.
I wanted to read this book, but I can also say from looking into the rear view mirror that I wasn’t quite expecting what I got with this book. It was so much more than I was expecting, which was an historical account of this fire that destroyed millions of books and brought out the best in Los Angelenos. Orlean has put together a beautiful book that closely examines the history of libraries in general and the LAPL in terms of its origins, it’s sexist history, and the current societal position it holds as a welcome mat for the masses regardless of race, color, creed, gender, or even itinerancy. The library is open to all who can get through their doors while they are open. Orlean focuses on this and breathes life into a building that is so much more than that, as it is the lifeblood of the city to so many.
The trips that Orlean takes with the staff of the LAPL, to other branches both closed and in use; into meetings about how to better serve their constituencies; and to library conferences where staff from all over the world seek ways to improve what they do in a changing world all serve to elevate the story of the fire and give us, the readers, a full-bodied and overt understanding of why we need public libraries. This was an absolutely fascinating read, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. And if you aren’t already a partron of your local public library, make it a point to go before the month is out. See the good these places do for all of our communities, no matter where we are in the United States.