The Library Book, by Susan Orlean, is ostensibly about a fire at Los Angeles Public Library, which caught alight in 1986 and burnt for more than seven hours before firefighters were eventually able to stop the blaze. The book recaps the investigation into the causes of the fire, including the suspicion that it could be arson, and follows the life of a man named Harry Peak, who was initially arrested and then released.
In practice, though, Orlean has written a book that is about far more than one fire in one library. This book is a love letter to libraries, and to communities and public spaces. It is a short treatise on the pitfalls of arson investigation science. It covers the AIDs epidemic, the history of women in professional roles in the US, the role of public services in the prevention of homelessness. It takes a hard look at how the police may manipulate vulnerable people, and tells the stories of many interesting and eccentric men and women who have been connected with libraries. Somehow, remarkably, these strands are all woven together into a narrative that feels coherent and compelling – even though I had a big chunky library hardback, I carried this around with me everywhere and could hardly put it down.
Although I borrowed this from my own library, I think I will buy a copy when it comes out in paperback, as I’d like to reread it and lend it out. This seems like a book that I could read several times and still get something new out of it. On this occasion, I was mostly struck by the message at the core of the book – that libraries are for everyone, everywhere. Orlean writes that the library was the first place where she was ever granted autonomy – where she was allowed to go off, by herself, and choose things for herself that she then took home and read. Thinking it over, I realised that this was probably true for me, too: we didn’t actually have a local library, but we had a bookmobile that came round semi-regularly, and I can remember choosing books from the children’s section when I must have been very young indeed. It was wonderful to reflect on this, and think about the huge number of people for whom the library was the first place where they got to be a little bit independent.
Orlean opens the book by talking about her childhood visits to the local library with her mum, but she expands out from individual anecdotes. Towards the end of the book, she talks about some of the creative ways that people in challenging terrain have found to lend books to one another. A school teacher who spends his weekends leading a book donkey across his home province so that children in rural areas can have access to stories; a van in Kenya that drives out to remote areas with the internet and a small lending library; a seemingly endless number of boat-based libraries in waterside communities. Far more technological libraries are explored as well – the book explores the way that libraries have utilised the internet powerfully, to democratise access to education and information. One of my favourite facts contained in The Library Book was the fact that some libraries in the US – LA Public Library key among them – have been able to work with local educators in order to offer modular high school courses, for adults who want to get their leaving certificates. What an amazing thing to be able to do.
Another aspect of this book that I loved was the description of early chief librarians in LA. There are several potted biographies scattered throughout the book, and it turns out that many of the people who were involved in the library’s early history were profoundly interesting (and in some cases, rather unnerving) characters. I don’t quite know how Orlean weaved all this excellent character writing into her plot so seamlessly, but the fact remains that she did so. Individual people are used to illustrate trends or themes in the city’s relationship with its library, but in a way that never feels trite or clichéd.
I loved The Library Book. Honestly, I think this is essential reading for any book lover, even if you wouldn’t normally consider yourself a non-fiction reader. If you are a familiar face at your local library, you will identify with this book and love how much it loves libraries; if you are less enthusiastic about them, maybe this will convince you. (Orlean is very candid about how her own relationship with libraries has waxed and waned over the years). True crime, love stories, social commentary, history, science, even a tiny bit of medicine and health policy – it’s all in here, and more. Truly, I can’t recommend this highly enough.
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