guest review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean, from Pops

Recommended for me from my father, with this nice write-up.

If you know a librarian, or you appreciate libraries, or you love books, this is a book for you; that’s what the title is telling us. There are thousands of books touching on this subject; Susan Orlean provides a compelling and approachable addition with this one.

In 31 short or long chapters, Orlean ranges widely with library history and librarian profiles; library trivia and book burning history; eccentric characters and stories stranger than fiction; and more, thus satisfying many interests without attempting to be an ‘all about…’ tome.

While this approach may still occasionally have the interest of a particular reader momentarily flagging, it would be only brief. The narrative thread woven throughout describes the Los Angeles Public Library; the disastrous Central Library fire of 1986; the mystery of its cause; and the many colorful, intertwining characters.

Along the way, we learn of libraries’ triumph over the ‘tech revolution’; the magical mix of personalities that make librarians and staff special, and the fire’s traumatic impact on them; the amazing and broadening social role of libraries, globally; historical library anecdotes spanning three centuries; L.A. Central Library architecture and rebuilding; book restoration; Fahrenheit 451 (and its author); the disturbing flaws in arson investigation; how AIDS touches this narrative; and more.

We get glimpses of the influential 1960s and 1970s through a library filter. And in brief interludes spend a ‘day in the life’ of the Children’s section, or the Music section, or the ‘InfoNow department.’ We peer into the possible future of libraries, and are reassured.

Yet this is also an openly personal story of a seasoned journalist seeking answers to mysteries – both public and private – while allowing her inner-researcher’s curiosity to wander down various rabbit trails that appear unexpectedly. This book, as with many, in part wrote itself. A veteran author, resolved to never again invest her life in creating a book, is compelled to write.

Her first-person voice is often present in describing interviews or other source material, but never distracts. While lending her journalist’s keen eye to details, she attempts little objective critique; she is a library booster.

We learn of her personal commitment to the subject in only a few brief episodes, doled out modestly, where endearing prose explains her devotion to the book’s purpose. Her library passion is rooted in early life experience nurtured by her mother; this becomes a touchstone rediscovered late in life, passed on to her son and brought to fruition in these pages. The book’s final two pages are lovely conclusion, returning to this personal story.


Postscript: an essay about a book about books, and about books from libraries, would be remiss without mentioning the physical book. This first-edition library binding is a bright orange, without jacket; the front and back cover text is imprinted into the nicely textured cover material. The orange leaps out boldly on the bookshelf. The front is bold text in bright shiny yellow, like polished gold against the orange. The back includes the usual blurbs (notably Erik Larson, among others) in white and yellow text.

Inside, both sides of the front endpaper display the summary typically appearing on a book jacket, here with a traditional-looking design.

The endpaper flyleaf has the usual author photo and brief bio; but the endpaper itself is special: an image of an old yellowed library lending-card sleeve, with a lending card that becomes personal dedication, connected to her personal story. The card shows four handwritten entries, for: Ray Bradbury, Orlean’s mother, Orlean herself, and her son. The image is so lifelike that a reader instinctively reaches to pull the card. I have tested this on others old enough to know; one cannot resist.

The volume is attractive to the eye and hand, with a pleasant heft. It’s a nice book; check it out from your local library!

That yellowed library card is a design feature in several places these days; lovely!

Thanks for sharing.

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