Briefly Noted: ‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean
“A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most peculiar book was written with that kind of crazy courage–the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come.” – Susan Orlean
“On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, ‘Once that first stack got going, it was Goodbye, Charlie.’ The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?”
If you Google this fire, you will find many pictures that are sad to see because they show the mess fire, smoke, and water make of books. The images I saw are copyrighted, so I can’t show them here. Frankly, in reading Orlean’s book, I was surprised at the number of damaged books that were saved, many by a long process of removing the moisture from the sodden pages. In many of the older books that escaped the fire and water, the smell of smoke still lingers.
You can also learn on the Internet that even though there was an arson suspect who couldn’t (or didn’t want to) keep his own alibi straight, there was never enough evidence for an indictment. While the book delves into the stories of that suspect, it’s difficult to read The Library Book with this lingering lack of closure about an unsolved crime. If this book were fiction, let’s say a whodunnit, the author would be criticized for the failure of the characters to solve the crime and bring the perpetrator to justice. The lack of closure creates within this book a lack of focus. That is, the book wanders a bit.
Nonetheless, the book is well written and demonstrates Orlean’s long-time and well-known talents for interviewing people and finding out what makes them tick. I worked in the college libraries at the universities I attended, so I share Orlean’s love of the library and, as such, see this book as not only the history of an important U.S. library but as a love letter to libraries and those who manage them.
Oddly, the fire–and the public’s support of the library after the fire, and seven years later when the main library reopened–might have saved the historic building. The building had for years been discussed as out of date and too small, along with having inadequate fire repression methods. So, a new wing was built and the old building remains, more vibrant and busy than before. If you love libraries, and especially if you have worked in libraries, you will probably enjoy this book. I did.
A Personal Note
I cannot bring myself to feel that, as an author, I am brave in any way for writing novels I hope people will read. More likely, I am foolish, for such a small percentage of books, including those from major publishers ever succeed in finding enough readers to support the publisher’s and author’s investment. Nonetheless, writing is typical of me, just one more example of my impractical life’s focus.
I never expect Hollywood or the New York Times to call and request either a film option or an interview. I have always expected more of my personal friends and online friends to read the books, but to the extent, they read novels at all, they choose the bestsellers from major publishers as a sure thing. Novels are different than other businesses in which community support often favors the local store rather than the chain. Buy local! But that seldom applies to books. The nursery, pharmacy, tire store, restaurant, and the grocery store expect my support, but they don’t buy my books. That’s a sad thing, I think, but when I read a book like this one, I have faith and hope that somebody, somewhere will ultimately find the stories I have to tell.
Susan Orlean has given us all a very memorable story and I appreciate it.