This book was so interesting! No wonder it had such a long wait at my library. The Library Book is about a crime — a massive, horribly destructive fire at the L.A. Public Library in 1986 — but it’s so much more than that. Orlean has gathered the stories of dozens of real life characters, and told them against the backdrop of the biggest character of all — the library itself.
“In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone 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 our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.”
I love libraries. In middle school, I decided to read the entire fiction collection from A-Z. I don’t remember how far I got (not very), but I do remember that in 6th grade, I spent a whole semester immersed in Douglas Adams and Piers Anthony. Outside of school, I was lucky to grow up in a city with multiple libraries. My favorite — Schimelfenig — has undergone many renovations. But it’s still the place I met my best friend on bike rides, where we checked out every medical thriller we could get our hands on. In college, I preferred it to the university library. And now, I take my kids there weekly to pick out their books while I check out the vast majority of what I read every year. It’s a sacred place.
“Books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books.”
The L.A. public library was massive compared to my hometown one. Containing hundreds of thousands of books, it acted as the central hub of information for the whole city. And in 1986, when a fire was deliberately lit in the stacks, about 400,000 books were destroyed (with 700,000 more damaged) before the fire could be put out.
“Destroying a library is a kind of terrorism. People think of libraries as the safest and most open places in society. Setting them on fire is like announcing that nothing, and nowhere, is safe.”
Orlean investigates the fire, focusing on a disturbed wanna-be actor widely believed to be the culprit. And it’s an incredible story — you would not BELIEVE the damage a fire can do in a setting like that. But the story of the library itself was so much more interesting than a fame-seeking arsonist. I never realized how political running a library is — the regime changes, the fights for funding and programs and neighborhood outreach. It’s a love story to libraries and the people who love them.