Review: The Library Book

“The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.” – Susan Orlean

The Library Book by Susan Orlean
310 pages
Genre: Nonfiction, true crime
Published by Simon & Schuster, 2018
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: I’ll definitely come back to this one every few years.
Reviewed by Indiana

If you’re reading this now, you probably love books.

You might think you love libraries. But it’s not until you’ve read The Library Book that you’ll really love libraries.

That sounds dramatic so let me back up. Susan Orlean is known for her enthralling prose, for turning odd hints of stories into something so much more. In The Library Book she captures audiences again with her exploration of the Los Angeles Public Library of 1986. Although no lives were lost, thousands of books were burned or damaged that day, enough to make up several of the other smaller branch libraries.

It’s been long suspected that Harry Peak, an actor, set fire the fire. As Orlean looks into his life and whether or not that he did set it, she also looks back at the history of libraries in the United States, weaving hundreds of years of history together with quirky and harsh characters.

One of the first she discusses is Mary Foy, who in 1880 was appointed the head librarian of the LAPL. Foy was 18 at the time and technically women were only allowed to use the “Ladies Room” or section of it. So to say it was surprising that she landed the job is an understatement. Though she only served four years in the position, she changed the ideas of what people considered a library.

Then there were people like Charles Lummis, who seemed like an adventurer out of some fantasy novel. Lummis was born in 1859, went to Harvard but dropped out to publish poetry and write for a newspaper in Cincinnati. He was offered a job at a newspaper in Los Angeles, which was only a small town at the time. He accepted but told the editors that it would take him a while to get there because he had to walk. In the span of 143 days, he walked to his new job and new life, chronicling the journey, which the paper published. Along the way, he also interviewed famous outlaws and suffered a broken arm among other ailments.

After living in Los Angeles for years (many of them spent as an editor, a preservationist and an Indian rights advocate) he became the city librarian. Lummis was known as “the human encyclopedia” so it seemed like a good fit, plus he had the passion to suit the job, desiring to make the library the best in the world.

However, he was quirky when it came to his methods. He asked a blacksmith to make a branding iron in the shape of a skull and crossbones so that he could brand what he thought weren’t good books. He also created warning cards that said things like “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.” However, he was persuaded to have them say instead “For later and more scientific treatment of this subject, comcult ___.”

Orlean brings the tale back around to libraries today and all the ways they serve the general public. Libraries are one of the only places where people don’t have to pay to sit down and read or hang out. People can get high school diplomas there, or get help with figuring out their family tree.

The Library Book is love letter to these wonderful institutions, as well as a call to support these pillars of culture that have sustained us for so long.

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