I need some more non fiction in my life. I generally like to read things that take me away from myself and my world when possible. It’s not that I don’t ever read challenging material or books that might make me uncomfortable. I do that as well, but I tend to pick things that transport me from my “real world” to fictional alternative worlds or historical worlds.
I often associate non fiction with biographies, self help and dry textbooks even though I know that is both unfair and untrue. I just don’t generally find them as transportive as I need them to be. I have to be invested or intrigued by the material and with non fiction I am more wary that it won’t get me there.
I have never read any of Susan Orleans’ books and was only familiar with her through the “Orchid Thief” film based on her work. I had no idea what to expect in terms of how she approaches her writing but I suggested this title to my book club to get us reading something outside of our general selections.
I read many great reviews about the book and every single one of them discussed the “mystery” at the heart of the story: the devastating 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library. Interestingly enough, the book is hardly about that. I think that may have been Orleans intent, but the story dances around the fire more than with it.
Orleans book isn’t a whodunit mystery. It is more of a series of essays about public libraries, how they began and how they continue to evolve as social institutions that provide support as well as information. It’s about librarians who serve as confessors, parents, teachers and friends to the millions of people who seek them out daily. What it takes to keep libraries relevant to their community and how libraries are intricately woven into the lives of those who utilize them is the crux of the book.
The fire is shoe horned in every so often in an attempt, I think, to string the multiple library vignettes together. I’m not sure that it worked and I don’t think that I needed it to. Each little piece of the library story was interesting enough to stand alone. The only constant needed to thread it all together was the Los Angeles public library itself. Even though it shifted from location to location under different authority and with ever changing purpose, the library was the story.
I am a “library person”. I rarely purchase books anymore and I’m not a fan of reading on an electronic device. The way that a book feels in my hands is still very much part of the experience of reading for me. Wandering through library stacks until a book spine or particular title calls to me is all tied up into my childhood visits to the library, the several library jobs that I had while in college. So, I am a little biased but I think that is what Orleans was getting at here. A celebration of a free, public institution that has embraced each technological advancement instead of buckling under the notion that it could become obsolete. A place that can still teach, contribute and enhance the community around it.
At times the book does ramble on a bit, but I think that is Orleans library crush showing. Her respect and admiration for libraries is always apparent and the years she spent researching the topic seem to have only deepened that. It’s a good read for library fans and folks who like to read but don’t count on the “mystery” to be the story here.