The Library Book

 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.   

Jane Austen quote re libraries 2 (2)

(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.      

Jane Austen quote re library 2(4)

(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.

The Library Book - Susan Orlean

Goodreads/Publishers Blurb:

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 is even 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.”     

22 thoughts on “The Library Book

  1. says:

    Where was I in 1986 when the L.A. Public Library burned? Probably with my head buried in a book. This is the first I’ve heard about that disastrous event. I was brought up in a culture of reading, living in the country, with weekly car trips to our downtown library. It was housed in an old wood Episcopal church in Pensacola’s historic district (c. 1700s), long before deconsecrated when the “new” church was built in 1903. Polished wood floors contributed to a feeling of sacredness, and the old lady librarians (well, I though they were old) whispered and shushed us. Absolute silence must be kept. Now the place is a museum of Pensacola’s history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      I didn’t remember it either Jo, but the book said some other important news story pushed it off the news radar. This book was published in 2018 but I don’t remember seeing it advertised either, and it’s exactly the sort of non-fiction book I like. I found the story of the fire and the out of work attention-seeking actor who they thought might have set it, although he was never charged, very interesting, kind of like a crime novel. Ah, your library memories are lovely. I remember the shushing too! And should have added that – libraries back then were places of quiet. When I occasionally attend book club there now it’s so noisy, and that 3D printer thing is just plain annoying.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      Hope you can find it – its a 2018 release, which I had never heard of until I saw it mentioned recently on another bloggers site. Thanks for reading! Joni


  2. Anne says:

    Now you have really piqued my interest! Even though this event occurred so far away from here, you make it sound a truly worthwhile read. Sadly, our libraries remain closed. Apart from purchasing a book, I have been ‘starved’ of good fiction since March, yet have read a number of non-fiction volumes that had been waiting for an opportune time. Thank you for this wonderful introduction.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Joni says:

      Thanks Anne….I hope you will enjoy it. Our libraries were closed until June when they started curbside pickup, which has been extremely popular – we were all book-starved!


  3. Eilene Lyon says:

    I know that I will love this book. Thanks for sharing this story. I can’t recall ever NOT having a library card. They are the most fabulous places in the world. If only I had the time to read everything! It’s amazing that you can recall the librarian’s name.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ally Bean says:

    I’ve never read anything by Susan Orleans. I think I need to change that. I like your memories about going to the library. Like you, the scent of books, the calm pace in the library– they appealed to me from a young age.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      I’d never heard of her Ally….and am not sure what else she has written…..I think a few other books but not on topics which interested me. Ah, the scent of books…..that’s a whole other post. I order a lot of new releases, and because the library pre-circulates the list ahead of time, I’m often number one on the order list for some of my favorite authors. I love it when I crack open a new book and there’s that wonderful smell – they should bottle that as an air freshener or candle or something.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. annieasksyou says:

    You’ve persuaded me; this sounds great. I’ve read articles by Susan Orlean, but none of her books. She’s best known, I think, for The Orchid Thief, which was made into a very interesting movie starring Chris Cooper—and I believe began life as a New Yorker article.

    So nice to see the video of John Lewis’s acceptance speech. It made me tear up once again. He was such a beautiful soul, and we need him now. Thanks, Joni.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Joni says:

      You’re welcome Annie. The video fit so nicely with the theme of the blog. The Orchid Thief didn’t sound like something which would interest me but maybe I’ll try the movie.


  6. Linda Schaub says:

    My mom and I used to patronize the library all the time … we used to get “People” magazine for years and they’d give comprehensive book reviews and we’d reserve those books sometimes before they even came on the market. Also our favorite authors. We’d reserve in each of our names and my mom would read the book in her allotted amount of time – I think for the newer releases, it was ten days … she’d finish and I had whatever time was left on her allotment of time. I hope I get through the books I bought to read last Winter – I only got three books read last Winter on the long holiday weekends. (Sorry I am so late commenting Joni. I was six days behind – I tried to get more sleep last Thursday night, so went to bed earlier, and had watched the debate on Tuesday online which began the domino effect of being behind here and late to bed. I have to change my ways. But I had to work late last night and tonight as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Joni says:

      We get 3 weeks for each book, with no renewal for best sellers or if someone else wants it, but it still keeps me going to get them read. I’ve read a ton of books this summer as they just keep on coming…..sometimes it’s overwhelming. I watched the debate last night and am now behind in Reader too…..I always seem to get behind mid-week. Trying to take advantage of the nice weather too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Linda Schaub says:

        I know when we got it from the library it was the same. My mom would get done quickly so I had more time, but I really cannot read in bed without falling asleep, no matter how good the book is, or even when I was young. Unless I sit on the side of the bed – sometimes.

        I hope I can read some this Winter – they are talking about the snow and the Polar Vortex. Sigh. I bought another book this Summer that Arnie, the older walker at the Park who is a nature lover, read and recommended. I ordered it from Amazon (Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm, by Isabella Tree) … it sounds boring – hope it isn’t boring, but he said he couldn’t put it down.

        I watched last week’s debate on my computer (I don’t have TV), but not the VP debate, though I did listen to parts of it. Sounds like there will be no third debate. I know when it is beautiful weather, you want to enjoy it … Winter is not that far off. I get behind over the weekend and it takes me halfway through the week to catch up. I was totally caught up on Wednesday at 11:00 p.m. or midnight but now two days behind again as there were comments to the comments I made. Yikes!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. J P says:

    My second job as a teen was working in the main library in my city. It was full of bookish, unusual people I did not identify with as a teen but would love to sit and visit with now, some 45 years later.

    This sounds like a good read. Sadly, my life has come to a point where I barely have time to read blogs, let alone whole books. I miss them.

    I wonder about the future of libraries in our digital age. In my own city I scratch my head as the buildings keep getting bigger as the books slowly disappear. I also chafe at the person who insists on being called the “Library CEO”. When I was young the title was Head Librarian, which seems to be more substance and less ego.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Joni says:

      That’s interesting re working at the library.
      Libraries may be changing their mandate, but I wonder if we need a new $62 million dollar library, just approved for one of the cities here, when books are going digital. They may talk about branching out to other areas, like tech stuff, renting out music instruments etc, but to me a library means books. I do see disadvantaged people come in to use the public computers though, to job hunt or fill out government forms etc and they have reopened these during the pandemic, appointment only, due to high demand. Interestingly the book mentioned that a librarian is a well paying job in the US, $60,000 a year and a degree in library science. Nowhere near that here except for a few at the top, most of our librarians are part-timers with training in something else, and it’s a bit above min wage with no benefits. Although the main branch is unionized, the others are not.
      It’s difficult to find the time to read when you are working – now that I’m retired I read one book a week, or about 50 a year, more this year obviously. It’s hard enough to get a blog written every week – I would never have been able to do that when working, and I seem to be perpetually behind in Reader these days…..

      Liked by 1 person

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