This months literary salon pick is a non-fiction book titled, The Library Book, penned by Susan Orlean, a long time staff writer for The New Yorker. With those credentials you know it will be good, and I must say this was one of my favorite reads this summer. But then the library has always been one of my favorite places, especially during the COVID crisis when their curbside pickup has been a real lifesaver – transporting me to another world for awhile.
(Quote by Jane Austen)
While I do not have my own library at home, just random bookshelves, I’ve been a proud library patron since the age of seven when we took a class trip to our newly opened village library. Although small in size with just two rooms, a children’s section and the adults side, I thought it the most marvelous place and was excited to have my own library card. I could already read by then, having started with the Dick/Sally/Jane books, but here were shelf after shelf of books, each with a different story just waiting to be told.
(quote Jane Austen)
As a quiet middle child I could always be found somewhere with my nose in a book. My mother would take me and my younger brother to the library every Saturday (after his hockey game and penny candy treats), and I would stock up on books for the following week. The library was one of the few buildings in town with A/C and I can still recall the blast of cool air which hit you when you entered the vestibule, plus the distinctive musty smell of books. The librarian, an older woman named Mrs. Sekritis sat behind a tall circular desk, and she would often comment on my choices as I grew older. While our little library stocked picture books for children and adult fiction for grown-ups, the selection for Young Adults (if that genre even existed back then) was limited – perhaps only L.M. Montgomery (I read the whole Anne series) and Louisa May Alcott (like many girls Jo was my heroine). And so I read the classics way too young, Dickens, the Brontes, whatever sounded interesting on the book jacket. Occasionally, when I would come across a YA book, I would find it fascinating reading about kids my own age, so different from my rather isolated life growing up on a farm.
I still get the majority of my books from the library, as I read so much it would be too expensive to buy them all, and our small local library is excellent at ordering in anything you might request, plus the librarians there are all such wonderful people. I seldom visit the larger downtown branch where the service is impersonal and the reserve lists long, except to browse the large print books (easier for reading outside with my aging eyes) of which they have a better selection. But whichever branch I visit, I still consider the library a sacred place.
But back to The Library Book.
On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?
Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.
In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.
Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.
Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.
As mentioned on the cover blurb, this 2018 book is a little bit of everything – true crime, history, biography and first rate journalism. The story of who lit the fire is fascinating and interwoven among the various chapters.She delves into the history of library fires over the years from ancient Egypt to the famous book burning of the Nazis in WW2, plus the destruction of thousands of books in wars including recent ones like the Gulf war – a list of the lost libraries of the world, so many words destroyed forever. She covers biographies of librarians, a different breed who must love people as much as they love books and the future and expanded role of libraries in our communities as beacons for the homeless and social services centers, as well as branching into art, music and technical programs such as maker spaces. (Even our small branch has a technical support person on staff but I’m not sure I could listen to that annoying 3D printer all day). I was aware of the history of the Carnegie libraries, but not the reason behind it. As a young boy Andrew Carnegie couldn’t afford the $2 fee for the local lending library, so he spent the last third of his life giving money away, funding a legacy of 1700 libraries for future generations of readers. In much the same way that Bill Gates spent a decade funding literacy in third world countries. If you want to change the world, books can help, one mind at a time. Introducing your child to the pleasure of books and reading iseven more important now in this time of COVID, when education seems so perilous.
And lastly I loved this book for it’s perfect prose, here’s a sample from page 309.
“The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage – the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come. I realized that this entire time, learning about the library, I had been convincing myself that my hope to tell a long-lasting story, to create something that endured, to be alive somehow as long, as someone would read my books, was what drove me on, story after story: it was my lifeline, my passion, my way to understand who I was. I thought about my mother, who died when I was halfway done with this book, and I knew how pleased she would have been to see me in the library, and I was able to use that thought to transport myself for a split second to a time when I was young and she was in the moment, alert and tender, with years ahead of her, and she was beaming at me as I toddled to the checkout counter with an armload of books. I knew that if we had come here together, to this enchanted place of stucco and statuary and all the stories in the world for us to have, she would have reminded me just about now that if she could have chosen any profession in the world, she would have been a librarian.”
and another excerpt from pg 93
“In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone has died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by out experiences and emotions; each individuals consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve catalogued and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can share, one that burns down and disappears when we died. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it – with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited – it takes on a life of its own.”
And so we read on…..
Postscript: I was moved recently by this video which fellow blogger Annie (AnnieAsksYou) posted, so I’m going to share it here. It’s a short clip of congressman John Lewis, who died recently at the age of 80, accepting the 2016 National Book Award for young people’s literature for March, his story of the civil rights movement. As a young black teenager in 1956 he was denied the privilege of a library card as the library was for whites only, but he had a teacher who encouraged him to “read my child, read.”