It seemed appropriate to borrow Susan Orlean’s The Library Book from the library, and her affinity with the institution caught me from the first page. I too remember walking to the library as a young girl, holding my mother’s hand, and gleefully letting go once inside to enjoy the freedom of roaming the stacks of children’s books. I too remember checking out so many books; we had to balance those slippery covers carefully as we walked home. If those books had disappeared in a fire, I would have been devastated. The Library Book tells the story of the 1986 fire that damaged or destroyed more than one million books in Los Angeles’ Central Library.
Perhaps the most poignant note in this book had me forgetting I was reading nonfiction:
Orleans says the fire reminded her of the proverb that when a person dies, it’s as if a library has burned to the ground. “A host of memories and stories and anecdotes that we store in our minds disappears when someone dies. It struck me as being a wonderful way of seeing why libraries feel like these big, collective brains — because they have the memories and stories of a whole culture inside them.
Orleans has produced a comprehensive book in her research, documenting what happens behind the scenes in libraries, how the librarians thought about the fire, then morphing into the library today as it adapts to the digital age. She takes the reader inside the stacks, observing and listening to the questions patrons ask and revealing how the library works. When she investigates the life of Harry Peak, the possible perpetrator, she never hopes to solve the mystery of the devastating fire – but you hope she will.
At times, her attempts at solving the mystery of the fire drives the narrative; other times, her observations of librarians and books connect with my curiosity and awe of both. I read it all carefully and slowly, and it has inspired three resolutions:
- To visit the Los Angeles Central Library,
- and find its collection of restaurant menus.
- To look for the Library’s float in this year’s Rose Bowl Parade.