The Library Book by Susan Orlean

This is probably the most literal title that could be given to this book as this is a book about a library. But it is also much more than that and I’m not sure that Susan Orlean could have chosen a different title to give her book as it is entirely suitable on many levels.

Los Angeles City Library was victim to a terrible tragedy when a fire tore through the shelves and destroyed countless books and manuscripts. It also suffered extensive damage due to the water used to quench the flames as well as the heat factor which affected the integrity of the building.

Los Angeles Library burning

This event is ostensibly the reason that the book has been written and Susan Orlean charts the disaster, the recovery and the consequences of it brilliantly, crafting a mystery story out of it as speculation as to how the fire started and whether it was arson was rife at the time.

She also explores the history of the library itself from its origins to the present day and how it and others have evolved into depositories of knowledge rather than just a place for books and how, despite the fact that physical books may be on the wane in light of e-books and other self-publishing means, and, of course, the internet, the libraries are still an essential part of the lives of many people.

Inside Los Angeles City Library

She talks about how they are hubs for the community: homeless people use them in a variety of ways; elderly people use them as a means to ease loneliness and solve clues in their crosswords like a personable Google; families use them as a hub to meet other parents and join groups where their children have storytime with other children; computer rooms are available for the public to use.

I’ve mentioned homeless people above and this and the library’s importance to them as a haven is one of the main threads that permeates this book.

I can remember being a student in Leicester, England and on one of the rare days where I had decided to study, I took myself off to the city library to attempt some solid reading. I sat at the table that was positioned in an opening within the surrounding shelves so that I could spread out my stuff a bit and settled down to some hard mental graft.

It had been a bright day up to that point but soon, as is typical with British weather, the darker clouds gathered and decided to send some rain our way. I was, obviously, dry in the confines of the library but soon, there was an influx of people, shuffling in from the street and these were Leicester’s homeless.

One man sat at the table with me. He had acquired a book from the shelves. I would have loved to have known what it was. I think we were in the Art books. It was certainly big in proportion as I could see this from the pages as he turned them. Rubenesque beauties maybe? Landscapes? Surrealism? Who knows?

He was wet, dressed in clothes that were worn and drab, ill-fitting and mismatched. His head was covered in what I can only describe as a dirty misshapen hat. He had an aroma emanating from him which was pronounced. I probably could have endured the smell because it wafted over only occasionally, timed with every page turn and the minty gum that I was chewing helped enormously. But he sniffed intermittently, maybe as a consequence of the rain, maybe as a result of a cold but the randomness of the noise drove me bananas and I had to leave shortly afterwards for a different table.

I bore no grudge towards this man. He did what he had to do to get out of the rain into a place that may not have welcomed him but certainly did not, like other places might, shun him and exclude him. The library is an inclusive place and we could learn a lot from that itself, never mind what is contained on the knowledge filled shelves.

And ultimately and surprisingly, considering its title, that is what Susan Orlean’s book is about: people. The library is the central hub around which her research revolves but in her examination of the fire which destroyed books and resources and other delights that the library had gathered and for which it was a receptacle, it is the people of the library that fill this tale: the librarians who led; the librarians who work the shelves and desks; the public who use the library for whatever purpose brings them there; the benefactors who were loathe to see the library decline; the desperate who find shelter there; and finally, the man who was accused of burning it down.

All human life is here and the knowledge that that brings with it.

One further thing to note is that Reese Witherspoon (or possibly, her appointed representative) really does know how to pick good books. First, Eleanor Oliphant and now, The Library Book. I wonder if I will encounter any more of her book recommendations on my book reading odyssey?

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