The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Writing: 5 Topic coverage: 5
Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Library Book by Susan Orleans, which will publish October 16, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Ostensibly the story of the massive 1986 fire that brought the Los Angeles Central Library to its knees, this book is so much more. With captivating prose, Susan Orleans tells the broader story — many meticulously researched threads exploring the fire itself, the arson investigation, the mechanics of book restoration, the building architecture, and the history of the L.A. library and of libraries in general. Sprinkled throughout are biographical vignettes of the players: librarians and Library Directors, volunteers who came in droves to help with the book rescue, firefighters, arson investigators, security chiefs and the hapless man accused of setting the fire. Each chapter starts with the catalog records of three to four relevant books and proceeds to delve into one of the threads in a little more depth.

The story is a very personal one for the author as well — her love of books and libraries shines through brightly. One (short) chapter covered the emotional trials involved with her actually trying to burn a book in order to experience the physical process.

Some tidbits:

• In Senegal a polite way of saying someone has died is to say that his or her library has burned.
• The shipping department moving books between branches: “It is as if the city has a bloodstream flowing through it, oxygenated by books.”
• “A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re alone.”
• A particularly impressive map collection — “it was one more piece of the bigger puzzle the library is always seeking to assemble — the looping, unending story of who we are”

Normally not a big non-fiction reader, I was absolutely unable to set it down and polished it off in a couple of days. Great for fans of Mary Roach.

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