The Library Book by Susan Orlean


I had been hesitant to read a book about a topic I lived with for many years, but two recent recommendations and a book loan later, well, what choice did I have? The great fear is that facts or the tone would be wrong, but that didn’t happen with this book. And I should say that I am only a patron of public libraries as my work experience was with academic libraries.

At the outset the author gives a strong and emotional description of her connection to libraries which began when she was a child. She and her mother went to the library several times a week and even when she was as young as four or five, she could go her own way within the library. How could you not love the first public spot where you achieved some independence? This made me think of my own first experience of a library. When I was 11 or 12 once a week I “babysat” for a family with several young children, that is, I helped their mother by hanging out with the kids. One of our regular activities involved driving to the library where I was encouraged to check out books for myself. I now see this was a kindness of the mother of that family because they lived on the farm where I had lived.

I was quite happy to read this paragraph:

My family was big on the library. We were very much a reading family, but we were a borrow-a-book-from-the-library family more than a bookshelves-full-of-books family. My parents valued books, but they grew up in the Depression, aware of the quicksilver nature of money, and they learned the hard way that you shouldn’t buy what you could borrow. Because of that frugality, or perhaps independent of it, they also believed that you read a book for the experience of reading it. You didn’t read it in order to have an object that had to be housed and looked after forever, a memento of the purpose for which it was obtained. The reading of the book was a journey. There was no need for souvenirs.

Of course, we all do love souvenirs of all kinds of journeys, but still, this is a much valued statement for me. At some point I recall having the realization that I didn’t need to own the most important books because they will always be readily available to me. It was quite endearing that the author said as soon as she headed for college, she “went wild for owning books.”

She reconnected with libraries when she began taking her own child to the library after moving to Los Angeles. It is the main library in downtown Los Angeles that is the focus of the book and in particular, the story of the catastrophic fire in 1986 that destroyed a million books, including many rarities. Recounting that drama comes in chapters interspersed with chapters that tell the history of that library and stories of its current employees and patrons.

A couple of unexpected things I’d like to remember. First, I learned that until recent years fire investigators made some assumptions about identifying where a fire began that had no basis in reality. Those assumptions have led them astray in making judgments about how a fire began. In addition a fire was deemed arson if accidental sources are eliminated, even if there is no proof a fire was arson.

In a very different vein, I was shocked to learn that in some cities a building owns the space above it and can sell that space. If the city limits building heights to ten stories and you have a five-story building, you can sell those five stories to someone who wants to build a 15-story building. This makes no sense but then I’m assuming that a city would pass such a law to limit the height of all buildings, not just the aggregate of all buildings added together.

Each chapter of the book begins with a short list of library items and their call numbers that somehow relate to the chapter itself. One of those items was a video of a man we knew from the University of Tennessee who became a “human interest” or “features” guy on local news in Los Angeles. Huell Howser was always an irresistible guy, always excited about whatever was at hand. It was fun to see YouTube videos of him. He died in 2013.

Susan Orlean, The Library Book, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2018, 310 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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