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Monday, November 19, 2018

Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean (audio)

This book was so much more and so much better than I had hoped! Isn't that a treat when that happens!? I had expected a pretty straightforward book about this horrific fire at the main downtown branch of the Los Angeles Library in 1986 and the "true crime" aspect of the hunt for the culprit. Instead, while it is all of that, it is also a love story to libraries and books. In fact, it is primarily a love story to libraries.

Susan was horrified to learn about this fire, years and years later when living in LA, and baffled about how she didn't hear about it at the time (excellent reason: It happened less than 24 hours before Chernobyl which dominated every national newspaper for days and weeks afterward, leaving only local coverage really of this catastrophe.) She thinks back on her own relationship with libraries and how much they remind her of her mother who, a child of the Depression, took Susan religiously. As an adult, in a fit of rebellion, Susan switched from borrowing to buying books pretty exclusively, until she herself had a child, and went back to the library. In researching this book she met most of the full-time staff of the main LA branch, which not only is where all the system-wide administration is fun from, but also houses most of the special collections, archives, and other unique matter, which is one reason why the fire was so devastating--much of what was lost could never be recovered or replaced.

Harry Peak, a blond actor who works part-time jobs and is a habitual liar, is quickly singled out as a suspect, but Ms. Orlean explains how and why arson is so hard to prove and it seems that Mr. Peak might not have been the culprit. He also might have--we'll likely never know.

Meanwhile, the lovely librarians toil on in their restored and renovated space, dealing with modern library problems such as homeless populations and whether to allow the viewing of porn on the public computers. They also deal with modern advantages, such as a local teen on the spectrum who is voluntarily cataloging a massive train map donation and finding spectacular finds which anyone else would overlook. We get a full history of this library system, and also of the book Fahrenheit 451 which I still haven't read (one day!) Made me think fondly of my years volunteering at the library in Charlotte and I immediately went onto my local library's website and reserve some books which I'd meant to do for some time. Delightful. And Susan Orlean reads the book herself.

Appropriately, I listened to this book on audio from my library via Libby (overdrive)

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