Book review: The Library Book, by Susan Orlean
All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here is my story, please listen; here I am, please tell me your story.
Journalist and author Susan Orlean began her latest book by investigating the devastating 1986 fire at Central Library in Los Angeles. By the time the fire was brought under control, half a million books were destroyed and 700,000 more damaged: “It was one of the biggest fires in the history of Los Angeles and the single biggest library fire in the history of the United States.” Looming over this cultural and community tragedy was the implication that it seemed to be arson.
The investigation honed in on a young man named Harry Peak as potential culprit. Peak is a tricky character: he had trouble with the truth, spinning wild yarns for friends and family and preferring embellishments to honesty. An actor, he went on auditions and had exciting, sometimes star-studded tales to tell from them, also claiming to have appeared on some TV shows. Orlean didn’t find too much evidence to support any of it.
He was also a bit of a drifter, so in addition to his exaggerations and fabrications, he’s a difficult person to pin down: “Large blocks of Harry’s time during this period are unaccounted for and left no trace. He built no resume, had no steady employment. He was a tumbleweed, lifted and carried wherever the wind took him, alighting briefly in this job and that and then blowing along, leaving little behind as he rolled on.”
In the course of following this initial tragedy + suspect narrative, paths suddenly branch out and new stories appear. Peak isn’t even the quirkiest character to populate this story. Orlean has always had an eye for somewhat eccentric but fascinating personalities, and they’re wonderfully in abundance here.
The library is an easy place to be when you have no place you need to go and a desire to be invisible.
A big portion of the book is dedicated to showing what libraries have meant to her and others, and covers history, the lives and jobs of dedicated employees and librarians, and the part the library plays in its community, now and as it adapts to changing needs. The Los Angeles library is at the center of this story, but the book becomes about libraries worldwide, how much their services encompass and how much depends on them. As anyone who loves the library knows, it’s never only been about book lending.
It seems simple to describe what a library seems to be – namely, it is a storeroom of books. But the more time I spent at Central, the more I realized that a library is an intricate machine, a contraption of whirring gears. There were days when I came to the library and planted myself near the center of the main corridor and simply watched the whirl and throb of the place.
In characteristic Orlean style, she lets her curiosity take her where it may and it results in so many fascinating tidbits that it’s hard to absorb it all in a single read of the book.
In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes made of our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die.
Despite this multitude of potentially chaotic threads (at times it seemed like every chapter was heading off in a new direction) this book is simply wonderful. I can’t remember the last time I felt so much pure joy reading something.
I love that her storytelling begins with one premise, and by the end I’d learned an astonishing amount about topics I wasn’t anticipating encountering at all. I know for some readers this isn’t preferable, and I’ve loathed it myself in other books that bait-and-switch or don’t maintain focus, but here it feels like the natural extension of curiosity. She has an eye for the quirky but compelling in history and personalities, and always for what makes a good story. Her writing is what makes any topic readable – it’s enveloping, detail-filled but not bogged down, charmingly funny, smart, and personally touching without making the story about her.
It’s impressive when an author can cover so much ground and still keep it interesting. Whatever thread Orlean told, I was invested. Her descriptions are extraordinary – a passage describing how the fire would’ve begun is strikingly memorable. Even the mechanics of this especially devastating and primely-conditioned fire are intriguing in her telling of it. “A stoichiometric condition is almost impossible to create outside of a laboratory. It requires such an elusive, precise balance of fuel and fire and oxygen that, in a sense, it is more theoretical than actual. Many firefighters have never seen such a blaze and never will.”
Orlean is ever detail-oriented, even extending to structure: each chapter begins with well-chosen actual book titles, hinting something of the content to come. These are delightful – Drunk, Divorced & Covered in Cat Hair: The True-Life Misadventures of a 30-Something Who Learned to Knit After He Split was a favorite.
I’m not sure how better to capture what I loved so much than to share some passages that spoke to me – especially those that tell a whole story in a single paragraph. It’s hard to explain a book that encompasses so much. I think it’s enough to say anyone who loves libraries, history and vivid personalities, and a good mystery will connect with this, and find the celebration of a library’s immense value to be comfortingly familiar.
It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace. The commitment to inclusion is so powerful that many decisions about the library hinge on whether or not a particular choice would cause a subset of the public to feel uninvited.
Library rules were schoolmarmish and scoldy…patrons were discouraged from reading too many novels, lest they turn into what the association labeled “fiction fiends.”
On Charles Lummis, LA librarian, library advocate, all-round fascinating figure: The popularity of pseudo-science books, which he considered “not worth the match to burn them up,” worried him. Instead of removing the books from the collection, he established what he called the “Literary Pure Food Act” to warn readers about them. He hired a blacksmith to make a branding in the shape of a skull and crossbones – the poison warning symbol – and used it to brand the frontispiece of the offending books. He also created warning cards to insert in the questionable books. He wanted to cards to say, “This book is of the worst class that we can possibly keep in the library. We are sorry that you have not any better sense than to read it,” but he was persuaded to use a more restrained tone.
People searching for missing loved ones sometimes scribbled messages in library books with the hope that the person they were looking for would see them – as if the library had become a public broadcast system, a volley of calls and wished-for responses. Page margins were dappled with penciled pleas tossed into the wide-open sea of the library. “Dear Jennie: Where are you keeping yourself?” said one note written on a page of a book in the Los Angeles library in 1914. “I have searched three cities for you and advertised in vain. Knowing that you like books, I am writing this appeal in every library book I can get hold of in hope that it may come to your eyes. Write to me at the old address, please.”
Ultimately, Orlean admits to a vacillating opinion on Peak’s guilt. It’s hard not to feel the same, and to be disturbed at what might have motivated the act. As she puts it, “Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams.”
An ambitious blend of Los Angeles history and social portrait of the community, centered around and branching out from the library’s role, sometimes circling back to the historic, mysterious fire that still haunts those who experienced it, and a curious man who may or may not have been involved – all wrapped up in a love letter to libraries, librarians, and the institution’s ability to adapt to the changing needs of the community it serves. 5/5