August 8, 2020

“The Library Book” by Susan Orlean

If you like books and libraries, “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean is highly recommended. Her journey starts with her son fulfilling a school assignment to interview a city worker. He chooses a librarian. Orleans starts to reminiscence about happy childhood times with her mother as they regularly visited their local library.

The 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Central Library starts as Orlean’s point of departure, but she quickly branches out to include how the LA library system began, thumbnail sketches of notable past library directors, and then segues farther afield to consider the history of books and libraries. Fascinating sections deal with Andrew Carnegie’s library building boom, book-mobiles and book burning.

Each chapter begins with a handful of seemingly random book titles that cleverly appear in the subsequent writing. Throughout the work, running questions include: Who or what started the fire? Will the Goodhue library building be salvaged or torn down? Will libraries stay relevant as we enter ever more deeply into internet culture?

Some of my favorite sections of the book illustrate what libraries, worldwide, are doing to keep libraries as not only repositories of information, but as community meeting places for people of all ages and needs. You can see a concert, take a yoga class, get tax help or sign up for free computer time at many libraries.

Orlean, a staff writer for “The New Yorker Magazine,” also counts 
“The Orchid Thief” and “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend” as some of her previous books.

One final note. My lovely hardcover library copy of “The Library Book” is a brilliant red with gold lettering; the trompe l’oeil check out card inside the back cover shows none other than Ray Bradbury and Susan Orlean as having both checked out the same book. Long live libraries!

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