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The Library Book by Susan Orlean book review

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On the morning of April 28, 1986, a fire broke out in the Central Library building of the Los Angeles Public Library in the city’s downtown area. The damage was not only destructive to the then-60-year-old structure, it reached devastating levels for its collection of books, in which 700,000 volumes were damaged, and 400,000 were permanently destroyed.

New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean – who also authored the novel The Orchid Thief, from which the Oscar-winning film “Adaptation” was based upon – decided to investigate the story of the Central Library fire, and ended up with a story that was not just about a structure fire, but also about libraries in general and their importance and impact to a community. Although it may sound mundane on the surface, Orlean’s story of the library fire has resulted in a multi-layered story that combines elements of true crime, municipal history, bibliomania and the joys of the library that is all deftly put together in her latest book The Library Book.

This book is a wonderful example of diligent research and journalism, as we discover the story of the 1986 fire and the rather colourful history of L.A.’s public library. We learn about how the element of fire can be quite devastating to a physical book, the rather unorthodox freeze method that was used to painstakingly repair and preserve the library’s books that suffered smoke and water damage, as well as the man who allegedly set the fire, one Harry Peak, a loner who aspired to be an actor, but because of his tendency to twist and change his story of where he was on the morning of the fire, was not convicted of arson.

And on the other side, the reader gets a colourful history of the Los Angeles Public Library, and its contribution to the city’s early history and the unique characters who helped to make this institution an important and relevant one to the city, from Mary Foy, who sort-of struck a blow for women’s rights by becoming the library’s first female head librarian in 1880, to Charles Lummis, the eccentric writer/journalist who ran the library at the end of the 19th century, but spent more time exploring the western frontier for his writings than in his library office, to Glen Creason, the quite knowledgeable head of the library’s map department.

Orlean also explores how the L.A. Public Library and its many branches across the city serves as a microcosm to how precious and important an institution a library is to its community, especially at a time when the internet and search engines are providing competition to the library as a means of providing information to the public. And in order to remain relevant during this time of rapid information gathering, Orlean proves that L.A.’s public library network provides a much vital service to its people, whether it be having a group of knowledgeable employees provide every type of fact or information over the phone upon request, or how it provides an important source of outreach to L.A.’s multitude of homeless citizens.

Written with a great deal of sharp insight, a deeply personal touch and a flair for hidden history, The Library Book goes beyond the card catalogue and the stacks to show how a damaging structure fire over 30 years ago portrays the importance of the library as a literary, informational and social cornerstone to a community. It’s certainly worth checking out (whether you have a library card or not).

By: Stuart Nulman – info@mtltimes.ca

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