Thursday, January 14, 2021

Book 267: The Library Book



"I was transfixed. It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries—and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up—not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever."

Dates read: October 6-10, 2018

Rating: 7/10

I don't remember the first time I went to the library. I'm sure I went quite often as a small child, but my first memories are of the Hamburg Township Library when I was probably about 8ish. There was a small market nearby to the original location, the one that was there for most of my childhood, and my mom would often drop me off to find a book while she took my sister and picked up some extra things for the week. As I got older, we'd spend more time at the library in Brighton, a neighboring bigger town with fancier facilities and wider selection. When my mom was mad at me for mouthing off, I'd be punished by being excluded from the next trip there. I can still conjure up in my mind the exact way the young readers section looked at Hamburg, the way the floors creaked. I remember how the nonfiction section smelled at Brighton, the older books with their distinctive aroma.

Like millions of people all over the world, I have a fond, deep attachment to libraries. Author and journalist Susan Orlean is one of those people who grew up loving the library, but found herself not visiting it as much as an adult. But then she had a kid, started visiting her local branch in Los Angeles, and found out for the first time about a major fire there in the 80s that burned hundreds of thousands of books...assumed to be arson, but never actually solved. This inspired her to write The Library Book, which explores not just that fire and the recovery afterwards, but also the history of the Los Angeles Public Library in general and the changing role of it (and other libraries) as the greater world has become a different place.

As you might be able to tell from that description, there's not one particularly strong focus for the book. The closest thing to a through-line is a true-crime-esque accounting of the investigation of the fire, and the primary suspect, a failed actor named Harry Peak. But along the way, Orlean touches on the history of libraries, especially the one in Los Angeles, highlighting several of the more interesting directors it has had along the way. While the image of a library in the popular consciousness tends to be of a somewhat stuffy institution, Orlean talks to librarians on the ground to get a more nuanced view, particularly about the role they play in coordinating community and social programming for their users, from children, to new Americans learning English, to the homeless. And she also includes input from the library staff that were there at the time of the fire, the way it impacted them, and how they and the library itself got back to normal.

Orlean's genuine appreciation and love for reading, books, and libraries shines through the text, making an instant connection with the reader. It's impossible to not happily recall your own wonder at the library the first time you went in and realized that all these books are just here, for anyone to take with them and read. And while it might not work for everyone, I found Orlean's subject-hopping to be kept any one portion from bogging down or getting boring. Her descriptions of how the Los Angeles Public Library came to be designed and built made me want to visit it, to see it for myself, and reflect on the ways that public good buildings like libraries have seen their value, in the eyes of the public, decline over the years. Older libraries were often constructed as grand, their mission seen as important and necessary. Nowadays, it's about how to keep costs down, aiming for sturdy functionality over inspiration.

The way Orlean unwinds her story may prove irritating to a reader who prefers a strictly linear narrative. And after spending quite a bit of time going down a path which makes you think she's relatively convinced of Peak's guilt for setting the library ablaze, she refuses to draw that conclusion, leaving it ambiguous in a way that could be frustrating for someone who really wants closure. But her storytelling skills are top-notch, and if you're willing to follow her, you'll be rewarded by a genuinely compelling work of non-fiction. While I'll admit it didn't have the little something extra that would have pushed it to "great" in my mind, it was very good and I happily and highly recommend it to everyone, especially those who love to read. 

One year ago, I was reading: Sin in the Second City

Two years ago, I was reading: Say Nothing

Three years ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

Four years ago, I was reading: The Wars of the Roses

Five years ago, I was reading: The Woman Who Would Be King

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