Susan Orlean, is a woman of many hats. She is a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of many books and articles, including The Orchid Thief. Apparently she is also a con artist, because she somehow convinced me to continue reading a book about libraries to the last page. In the same vein, The Library Book just might cross as many genres as hats worn by Susan.
First The Library Book is non-fiction. Orlean educates us about libraries in general – including their history and function in society. Then she focuses on the Los Angeles central library, which had a colorful history, to say the least.
In focusing on the Los Angeles Library, the book becomes part biography, as Orlean details the eccentric City Librarian, Charles Fletcher Lummis. Although Lummis headed the library for a relatively short time, his antics preceded him. Initially coming to Los Angeles to work for the Los Angeles Times, Lumis decided the best way to get there from his home in Cincinnati was to walk. Of course he had to inform the public of his “tramp across the continent” via weekly published letters of the same name. His world explorations included exploring Mayan ruins in Guatamala, which he claims led to a temporary bout of blindness. He also lived with Native Americans for several years, leading to a passion for these peoples and their well-being. Although he didn’t have any experience working in a library, he was the Los Angeles City Librarian for a handful of years at the turn of the 20th century.
Also somewhere in this book is a bit of true crime, as Orlean describes the 1986 fire that took more than 350 firefighters over 7 hours to fight the 2,000 plus degree blaze. Hundreds of thousands of books were destroyed and the library remained closed for 7 years. As Orlean delves into the investigation – was it arson? Or accidental? she details the prime (and only) suspect, Harry Peak.
And if that weren’t enough, The Library Book is also part study in sociology. I found her discussion of libraries as havens for people, particularly the homeless, interesting. I also liked how she detailed librarians as an early form of google search, where patrons would call in with their most pressing questions, you know, things like which was more evil, crickets or grasshoppers? And her descriptions of the various collections of things, not just books, that libraries hold, was eye opening.
This is one of those books that might not sound interesting, but if you’re a generally curious person and like to learn the background stories behind things, it’s great. It’s one of those that you kinda have to trust based on a review, because who really would think a book about libraries would be interesting?
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