Susan Orleans The Library Book is not always an easy read. The chapters where she details the 1986 Los Angeles Central Public Library fire feel so real you almost have to take a break from reading them for an hour or two. When she shares the experiences of the library staff who worked there at that time of the fire and tells of how they experienced something very like PTSD from seeing their workplace burn, it seems as if you were right there with them while they stand on the street and watch it happen.
One of my favourite moments in The Library Book is when she interviews a senior librarian (he started working there in 1979 and still works there today), Glen Creason, about the moment when the books are finally delivered back into the building after the rebuilding and he says “when the library reopened, we were so happy to see our books again!” It seems like those books are his coworkers as much as the people he walks in with every morning or eats lunch beside in the gorgeous gardens surrounding the library. It took over seven years for their library to be refurbished and more than 400,000 books were destroyed and 700,000 were damaged. The cost of the fire was astronomical but, to the people who worked there, Orleans found that the emotional cost stays with them. Many can walk through the stacks and point to books that ‘survived’ the fire.
Everything I had read about this book told me that it was exactly the kind of book I would love – part love letter to libraries (I also love libraries), part mystery, a whole lot of history and a little bit of a personal story of the author – but it was also about a library fire so I was hesitant about reading it. A library fire? Maybe I would have to skip this one. It seemed a little too close to home for me. I took one look at the stunning cover that author Susan Orlean helped to design (the publishers did not choose to include a dust jacket) with a bright red background, beautiful gold lettering and a single flame in the centre with a terrific design on the spine and wonderful end papers. This is a woman who knows her books, I was thinking as I first picked up my hold on the book, so I bravely jumped in.
I was rewarded for my courage. In researching the terrifying fire the author weaves a powerful story of how the community worked together to rebuild their library and she tries to unravel what really happened. Each chapter begins with three or four citations for books that relate to the topic she is going to cover in that chapter and then she dives right in. Some of those chapters were so fascinating I feel like I couldn’t tease out a single fact to quote here because everything was worth remembering or mentioning. I haven’t stopped talking about this book since I began reading it. The research that she must have done into individual things like fire suppression, the psychology of arsonists or the investigation into the fire was extensive which isn’t surprising from a staff writer at The New Yorker. I’d say that I’d love to meet her but I don’t want her to waste her time talking to me – she should be busy researching and writing.
Some chapters are dedicated to the history of the Los Angeles Public Library system but others are about libraries and the world of librarianship. Susan Orlean wanted to write this book because she was thinking about her own relationship with libraries and how her mother let her roam about their local library when she was young. She tells the story that her mother would take her there weekly and then let her travel to the library alone when she was old enough. She felt that her library visits were “dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived because in the library I could have anything I wanted.” This author is a superfan of the library and she interviews many others who are equally passionate throughout her book. She spends time with members of the library’s staff – sometimes an entire day – and I can’t say that those were my favourite chapters because I thought the whole book was an absolute delight, but when she joins the reference staff for a morning and writes about the variety of questions they receive I did feel a shiver of familiarity. I was actually laughing on the couch as I read about the call from a person who was writing a script (the book is set in Los Angeles) and called in to ask how someone would say “the necktie is in the bathtub” in Swedish. I’ve never had exactly the same question during any of my shifts on the desk but I have experienced something very similar. This is part of what makes library work so much fun – the endless variety.
Variety is the right word to describe the history of that particular library in downtown Los Angeles. I was astonished to read about the incredible people who were hired to be the chief librarians of the Los Angeles Public Library from 1873 on. I mean, Lin-Manuel Miranda could find enough in here to create his next musical, it’s really that much fun. One of the chief librarians, a man named Charles Fletcher Lummis, hired a blacksmith to create a branding iron so that he could mark books that he thought were inappropriate because they included content that featured ‘pseudoscience’. Imagine how that would go over in 2018 and the world of social media. It’s worth reading this book just to learn more about Charles Fletcher Lummis but he isn’t the only fascinating character in the library’s history. There was also a period in their history known as ‘The Great Library War’ when their board of directors decided to fire a beloved, qualified librarian – Mary Jones – in favour of a male candidate saying that she didn’t need the job because she wasn’t required to support a family. Can you believe it? The debate became quite heated and there were protests by library patrons as well as staff with support from Susan B Anthony! You can read more about it on their library’s blog. It’s absolutely fascinating.
Susan Orlean doesn’t confine herself to the history of the library in this book. She delves into every possible nook and cranny of the current library world by interviewing their front-line staff, fundraisers, their CEO, staff from smaller branches, even the staff who pack the endless number of books that are transferred from their central branch to the outlying locations (there are seventy-two) and their professional security guards. By the time she reaches the end of her book Susan Orlean has done more than told the story of a catastrophic library fire, she has made a contribution to the long list of ‘must-read’ books that bibliophiles will be talking about for years. I never miss books about libraries or bookstores and this one was outstanding from beginning to end – and, on the final page, there is an image of a date due slip with Ray Bradbury’s name, the author’s mother’s name, her own name and her son’s name – so the book is almost perfect, really. Her final chapter summarizes her feelings about writing the book and her relationship with libraries as she shares that she wanted to write the book “to tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine, and how that feels marvelous and exceptional.” You really have to read this book. The Library Book.
— Penny M.