Book review · Bookish talk

The Library Book by Susan Orlean | Book Review

PUBLISHING DATE: 16th October 2018
PUBLISHER: Simon Schuster
ISBN: 1476740186

On 29th April 1986, a disastrous fire broke out in the Los Angeles Public Library, reducing four hundred thousand books to ash and destroying another seven hundred thousand. This fire, that burned for around seven hours, brings chills down any book lover’s spine. I admit, I was unaware about this horrific fire before I read this book, and picked up this book to learn about it. But Susan Orlean, through her extensive research, detailed facts and impeccable descriptions, has not only described the arson of  ’86, but has also related the unexpectedly colorful history and future of the L.A. Public Library. This book is an ode to libraries and librarians all around the world, a love letter to a place close to the hearts of book lovers everywhere. Don’t dismiss the book as a dry history book. There are anecdotes humorous, sweet and sad arising from Orlean’s interviews and research. Orlean focuses on the Los Angeles public library system and jumps from the 1986 library fire, to the history of L.A’s libraries, to several personal stories about librarians, to a discussion about homelessness, to the future of libraries and more.

The Los Angeles Central Library looks like what a child might assemble out of blocks.The building – buff-coloured, with black inset windows and a number of small entrances – is a fantasia of right angles and nooks and plateaus and terraces and balconies that step up to a single central pyramid surfaced with a mosaic of colored tiles. It looks ancient and modern at the same time. […] It is one of those rare places that have a kind of a sacred atmosphere, full of quiet so dense and deep that it almost feels underwater.

This beautiful description of the reconstructed library makes you feel like you are walking with Ms. Orlean as she visits the library for the first time. After this visit, when she learns about the fire that happened 30 years ago, she begins researching. But along with learning what happened that day and the investigation afterward Susan Orlean has peppered this story with all kinds of facts about reading, libraries and books all throughout the book.

Some of my fondest memories of my childhood are going to our local library with my mother as soon as it opened and not leaving before it closed. I loved carrying books over to the checkout counter, carefully balancing them in my arms. I loved putting them in my backpack, already dreaming about sitting in my bed and reading them. The library has been an essential part of my life and this book brought back so many memories and made me fall in love with libraries even more than I already do.

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.

The author has beautifully described libraries and their magic.

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.

The Library Book is a tribute to libraries and librarians everywhere and is a must read for all book lovers and bookworms. It is a captivating novel with a mix of history, suspense, mystery and analysis of what the future of libraries looks like.

The book recounts, in an extremely engaging manner, the five year long investigation into the fire. A year after the arson, 29 year old Harry Peak was arrested but released three days later when the district attorney declined to file charges against him. And today, 32 years later, the case remains unsolved. Did Harry Peak have anything to do with the fire? Was he the actual culprit? This is the central question of the book.

The fire and its aftermath are described in horrifying detail.

Usually, a fire is red and orange and yellow and black. The fire in the library was colorless . You could look right through it, as if it were a sheet of glass. Where the flame had any color, it was pale blue. It was so hot that it appeared icy.

A astounding fact about the fire is the role the fish industry played in saving the book. Yes, the fish industry! The firefighters trying to put down the uncontrollable fire caused more damage to the books. The wet books were susceptible to mold and mildew, which are as bad as fire. Here’s a fun fact: Freezing a wet book is the only way to save it. But how do you freeze thousands of library books? That’s where the fish industry comes in!

Susan Orlean finishes her book with a mesmerizing salute to the beauty of libraries and  the people who love them.

This is why I wanted to write this book, to tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine, and how that feels like a marvelous and exceptional thing. All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here is my story, please listen; here I am, please tell me your story.

I would like to thank Netgalley and the publishers, Simon and Schuster for the advanced reader’s copy of this marvelous book which released on 16 October 2018.


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