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The Library Book

Review

The Library Book

Susan Orlean is an author and a staff writer of The New Yorker. She attended the University of Michigan and always dreamed of being a writer. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller, THE ORCHID THIEF. Some of her other books include RIN TIN TIN, SATURDAY NIGHT and THROW ME A BONE. Her newest work, THE LIBRARY BOOK is an October 2018 release from Simon & Schuster.

THE LIBRARY BOOK is many things: an investigation, a love letter and an interesting history. It is focused on the 1986 Los Angles Public Library (LAPL) fire but is very much inspired by Orlean's own love of the institution that is the library, no matter where in the world or when in history you are examining. The fire could not be put out for seven hours, burned 2000 degrees, destroyed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 others. The LAPL is no ordinary library, and it has an enthralling history dating back to the 19th century. Orlean not only investigates the life of the suspected arsonist of the fire, Harry Peak, but details the LAPL's leaders and role in LA since its creation.

"THE LIBRARY BOOK was multi-faceted and so much more than I ever expected it to be....It is perfect for those who like to switch up what they read frequently."

I typically prefer to read nonfiction over fiction, but what better way to cross over between the two than to read a nonfiction book about reading? Susan Orlean’s THE LIBRARY BOOK immediately caught my attention when I heard about it. It is one of those books that can break me out of what I typically read. I could feel Orlean’s passion for libraries in every page of her writing. THE LIBRARY BOOK was multi-faceted and so much more than I ever expected it to be. Told in alternating timelines to showcase the complexity of the LAPL and the horrendous fire, there were few dull moments. One chapter would focus on the fire investigation, one on the history of the library, and the next on the present day running of the library. It is perfect for those who like to switch up what they read frequently.

The LAPL fire occurred far before I was born, but what I found fascinating is its lack of publicity because it happened to occur two days after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Susan Orlean is, in a way, giving the fire the media coverage it deserved 32 years ago. THE LIBRARY BOOK pleads the case of the importance of books in our history, and the devastation of this fire is incomprehensible. I was very much intrigued by the LAPL itself and what a massive impact it has on LA. I have always believed libraries to be important in my community, but none of the libraries I have ever visited exist on the scale that the LAPL does. The reach of the institution of the library is something I never quite realized before reading this book.

Harry Peak was the main suspect of the fire, but he was not the star of THE LIBRARY BOOK; the library and the librarians were. Harry Peak’s life was undoubtedly thought-provoking, but not much is known about him. I like to think Orlean humanized him in a way that others did not at the time of the fire. My favorite characters, though, were the many librarians who either historically worked at the library and made it what it is today, or who currently do. This book made me reflect on the role of libraries in our society and just how many challenges and issues they face regularly. Ultimately, Orlean succeeded in making libraries even more essential institutions in my eyes than they were before. Her work contains not only contains library books and their Dewey Decimal numbers at the beginning of each chapter but also relevant photographs.

Even though THE LIBRARY BOOK is a nonfiction book about libraries, it is very much a story that will appeal to readers and non-readers alike. It is the ideal read for fiction readers who are hesitant to read nonfiction but will be invested in this topic. I highly recommend that anyone who is skeptical about libraries’ role in our society or that believe they are no longer relevant read this book. The LAPL from the time of its creation, through the fire, and into the present, can teach us all something about perseverance through tough times. THE LIBRARY BOOK may not be what you typically read, but it will be impactful on how you view the library and the world.

Reviewed by Grace P., Teen Board Member on October 30, 2018

The Library Book
by Susan Orlean