Why not take a break from the world with a strangely soothing tale of a library fire? That question appears to be pure chaos, but seriously: wouldn’t it be nice to let a meticulous journalist and storyteller narrate a well-researched account of history, memory, and true crime? Good news: you can do it! Just plug your headphones in and let Susan Orlean and The Library Book transport you to a different world.
Orleans covers more than just the true-crime glitter that is strewn around the Los Angeles Public Library fire of 1986. Of course, she covers the event, the alleged crime, and the alleged arsonist- and she does it all with respectful skepticism and a desire to hear what all those involved and affected have to say. She goes beyond the events of the day and offers a microhistory of libraries in America, with special care given- of course- to the Los Angeles Public Library. She covers the dreamers, weirdos, idealists, and battle-hardened librarians who dedicated their lives to building the library and to caring for all of the people of LA- not just those interested in taking out books and holding study groups.
Reading- or rather listening, to this book at the start of the second year of a global pandemic was a bittersweet adventure. We are at a point where libraries allover the world are closed, and people are cut off not only from books but from community and care as well. Orlean goes into detail surrounding the vital role of libraries in the lives of those who are unhomed, and being unable to access that small amount of comfort and safety in a time of such despair must make the toughest days even tougher. Early on in the book Orlean states (rightfully) that “In times of trouble, libraries are sanctuaries.” Unfortunately, this troubling time is something that keeps people from being able to seek sanctuary in libraries. Libraries and more specifically, librarians) are, of course, doing everything they can to continue to care for the hearts and minds of people all over the world- our current situation is just not a scenario that Orlean, libraries, or most people thought would be the defining disaster of the modern world.
Orleans tackles the fire itself like a Hollywood blockbuster; the chapter detailing the destruction is breathless, break-neck, and pulsing with adrenaline. She gives time and respect to countless people who work in the library, for the library, and depend on the library in many different ways. She speaks to her own experiences with libraries, from visiting them at a young age with her mother to visiting them again later with her own child. The descriptions of visiting libraries hit me with a sharp sense memory of the brown-carpeted shelves and tunnels within the children’s section of my hometown library. It has been years since I’ve been back in that area, and decades since actually walking into that library. If we are ever able to safely travel again, the Guilford Free Library is at the top of my destination-list.