ABOUT THE BOOK:
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.
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The Library Book by Susan Orlean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Library Book by Susan Orlean is a 2018 Simon & Schuster publication.
I couldn’t have been happier when this book finally reached the top of my TBR pile. I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a long time. Naturally, I was drawn to the ‘books about books’ aspect, but was also mortified by the true crime elements. Who on earth would deliberately set fire to a public library?
Susan Orlean attempts to answer that very question, while detailing the rich history of the Los Angeles public library. What a fascinating journey it was –
The author, who is not originally from LA, had not heard about the fire that ravaged the central library back in 1986, until an offhand remark piqued her curiosity. Her research unearthed the library’s storied past, which is a compelling drama all on its own.
But she also attempts to shed light on the fire and the primary suspect, Harry Peak. Was Peak guilty, or just a consummate liar?
The book begins on a horrifying note. In 1986, the library housed a very impressive number of books and records, which included a large ‘stacks’ area. The building was not up to code either, so it only took a short time for the old dry paper to ignite and spread rapidly. Any type of fire which destroys a home or business is difficult to hear about. But, of course as a book lover, I was nearly in physical pain reading about the hundreds of books damaged by fire, smoke or water.
It was also disconcerting that the fire barely made a blip in the press. Granted, there were other major news stories going on at the time. But, now for the first time, thanks to the amazing work this author did, we can see how the fire effected the city, the patrons, and the librarians. We also get a close -up and personal look at how a library functions and the important work librarians do. What an amazing job. Working with the public has its drawbacks, of course, but I was truly impressed with how the librarians handle all the phone calls, answer questions on a myriad of topics, and cope with situations such as how to handle the homeless who often use the library to as place of shelter during operating hours.
The wealth of information and history surrounding the Los Angeles public library is vast and completely absorbing, especially if you are passionate about books and libraries. The mystery surrounding the fire, however, is perplexing and frustrating. Orlean presents the facts, and I must agree with her opinion of the prime suspect. The book is categorized as ‘True Crime’, but more than anything I think it falls into the history category. It is also a book that makes one truly appreciate the importance of libraries.
I have always supported libraries, and I try to remind people that although Netgalley, Edelweiss, KU, and Scribd, provide thousands of books right there at your fingertips,( and I am as addicted to these services as anyone else), the library will never reject you ‘based on the information you provided in your profile’, and it doesn’t cost you a dime for a library card. So, don’t forget to take advantage of everything the library has to offer-
Books- both print and digital, audiobooks, music, movies, documents, newspapers, magazines, research material, job information, book clubs, children’s story hour, free access to computers and the internet, literacy programs, programs to help learn new skills, community clubs, and a host of other services- most of them free.
There are many ways to support your local library: volunteer or donate any books or magazines you don’t plan to re-read or keep, and if you are in a position to do so, offer a little financial help from time to time. You can even deduct it on your taxes!! Funding for libraries is not always stable or dependable.
Obviously, book lovers need to read this one, as well as history buffs. While it starts off on a somber note, by the end of the book you will feel as though this eye- opening journey was a rewarding adventure. I am in awe of the LA public library, and its rich history, and have an even greater appreciation for the importance of libraries in general.
Orlean did a terrific job with her exhaustive research and it is obvious she put in many hours with those involved with the library and with those associated with Harry Peak. The book is well- organized, and unlike some non-fiction history books, I never zoned out or lost interest. If you love books or libraries, history, or True Crime this book is one you won’t want to miss out on!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
I'm the product of a happy and uneventful childhood in the suburbs of Cleveland, followed by a happy and pretty eventful four years as a student at University of Michigan. From there, I wandered to the West Coast, landing in Portland, Oregon, where I managed (somehow) to get a job as a writer. This had been my dream, of course, but I had no experience and no credentials. What I did have, in spades, was an abiding passion for storytelling and sentence-making. I fell in love with the experience of writing, and I've never stopped. From Portland, I moved to Boston, where I wrote for the Phoenix and the Globe, and then to New York, where I began writing for magazines, and, in 1987, published my first piece in The New Yorker. I've been a staff writer there since 1992.