Greetings, internet-lings. Yes, I am back on the blogging bullshit, witness me, etc etc. Things are happening, and as always, I keep a tenuous grip on sanity by shoving as many words-units in front of my eyeballs as possible. And aside from the usual personal woes and worries, we’re in the middle of a weeding blitz at work, and it is the WORST. I hate getting rid of books, even when they’re not my books (a thought so ghastly I refuse to even acknowledge it).
Today, I’m talking about a book about one of my favourite topics: books. It’s The Library Book by Susan Orlean.
Boring? Classy?? Both?????
The Summary Heist
On the morning of April 28, 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?
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.
I don’t even know what to say. This book is amazing. I loved the double narratives: the mirco level investigation into the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library’s central branch, and the macro level story of libraries, from their beginnings as private lending collections to the monumental industry shift that occurred in the 19th century, to the strange, ever-evolving role they play in modern society. Orlean touches on so many different topics and yet somehow, the entire book feels perfectly cohesive.
And it is stunning prose. She is an amazing writer, with a gift for describing the institution of the public library in a way that feels at once familiar and fresh. My favourite passages were the ones that described the peculiar, almost magical atmosphere of the public library, which is somehow exactly the same no matter which library you go to.
I mean, obviously, I’m incredibly biased. This book was basically written for someone like me, who as a child saw the library as a safe haven, a refuge from the chaos of an abusive household, a place to get books, which were the ultimate form of escape from a troubling reality, and then grew up idolizing (and idealizing) the public library as a sacred space, and who even now, working in the library profession, when all illusions ought to come crashing down, remains blessed with a wholehearted belief in the indisputable importance of the library in any healthy, functioning society.
But it’s also just a really fucking awesome book. and if you’re reading this blog, you must have some appreciation for books and libraries, or else why would you even be here dude, and so I say to, GET THEE TO THE LIBRARY.
READ. IT. It’s a book about books, what more do you want?
Every single line of this book was amazing. Some favourites:
“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.”
“All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen.”
It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured, collected here, and in all libraries — and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up–not just stopped but saved.”
“People think that libraries are quiet, but they really aren’t. They rumble with voices and footsteps and a whole orchestral range of book-related noises—the snap of covers clapping shut; the breathy whisk of pages fanning open; the distinctive thunk of one book being stacked on another; the grumble of book carts in the corridors.”
“The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace.”
Los Angeles Central Library
Book Boyfriend material
Mary L. Jones, City Librarian and HBIC
Basically she pissed off her board of directors, who then decided to fire her and replace her with a man. She wrote the following to her mentor, Melvil Dewey : “I am asked to resign to make way for a MAN.” When she was fired, she refused to resign or surrender the keys to the library, saying : “At first it was my inclination immediately to yield to the request relayed upon me by the president. But, upon reflection, I have concluded that it would not be fitting for me to tender my resignation as the head of a department where only women are employed. When such a resignation is tendered solely on the grounds that the best interests of the department demand that its affairs no longer be administered by a woman. Ever since the adoption of the present city charter, the library has been presided over by a woman with a staff of assistants composed exclusively of women.”
Nine and a half out of 10 books about books about books about books about –
ROBYN’S FINAL THOUGHT
Sometimes, I tell my fiance that I love him more than books… and sometimes, I tell the books I love them more than… er, as much as my fiance. Yes. “As much.”
– xo, R