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.

Miss Zukas and the Library Murders by Jo Dereske

zukasI caught a few minutes of a radio interview with a local author, but I never caught her name. She apparently writes library-themed mysteries set in a fictional version of my new hometown; I heard one of her titles, and a tiny bit of research later, had the first book in her series from the local library: she is Jo Dereske, and this is Miss Zukas and the Library Murders.

Miss Zukas is an extreme, ridiculous stereotype of a librarian. She favors color-coordinated cardigans and sensible shoes, still wears her hair in the style her mother gifted her on her sixteenth birthday, and keeps her apartment obnoxiously, antiseptically clean. “She blanched at the idea of stray thoughts popping about.” I thought of a librarian girlfriend of mine, who was offended by the opposing, counterculture librarian-stereotype in NOS4A2 (purple hair, funny hats, obscenities and Henry Rollins) – she felt it was too trendy, too over-the-top. Well, I was tickled by the purple-haired librarian, and for a moment thought I was offended by Miss Zukas. But it’s pretty clear that this is meant in good fun, that Dereske is laughing with us, so on we go. (It helped when she ironically quoted Socrates at her boss; I could almost believe that Miss Zukas herself was in on the joke.)

The mystery itself – the “library murders” – qualifies as a cozy; the blood is off-stage. Even the references to sex (Miss Zukas has a friend who might be termed, by our prim heroine, as promiscuous) are oblique. And yes, you guessed it, Miss Zukas is the amateur sleuth who helps save the day. Her girlfriend Ruth, a free-spirited and often drunk artist, makes a fine sidekick; there is even a little romance along the way. I think the least believable element (in a book not trying too hard for realism, I should point out) was the friendship between these two women: it didn’t quite ring true for me that a woman as OCD and repressed as our Miss Zukas could really maintain a relationship with the outrageous Ruth. But so be it.

I was a little doubtful once or twice early on, but quickly found myself involved in and amused by the story as well as silly Miss Zukas. The book itself is a little silly; certainly light-hearted; but in the end, entertaining. I zipped right through it. And you know I don’t usually find much to occupy me in a cozy, but I may just have to go find book two in this series. A diverting, easy-reading cozy mystery set in a totally wonderful little town (of course), starring a surprisingly endearing librarian of the shushing sort.


Rating: 6 cards in the card catalog.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

wildFrom essay #3, “Tawny Grammar.”

I always liked libraries: they were warm and stayed open late.

(Here in Houston we might point out instead that libraries are cool.)

Oh, if only this were still the case. City and county budget cuts mean that libraries are decidedly not open late any more, at least not where I come from. Do you have a local public library that stays open late? Speak up!

Keep up with my reading of this essay collection:

  1. “The Etiquette of Freedom”
  2. “The Place, the Region, and the Commons”
  3. “Tawny Grammar,” coming soon.

hemingWay of the Day: as an archivist

Oh my word, Liz does it again. Never was there an article more designed to make me sigh and daydream. From PRI’s The World comes

This came to me from Liz, who got it in turn from Jessamyn West (blogtwitter). A solid pedigree right there. I swoon; this is my dream job.

two striking paragraphs from Young Men and Fire

A cloudburst was already waiting to challenge us at the top of the ridge. From the bottom of Meriwether Canyon we could both see and hear it making preparations for a joust with us. As we tried not to fall backwards to where we started in the canyon, we could hear the storm rumble and paw the ground. When we neared the top, it tried to beat us back by splintering shafts of lightning on gigantic rocks. There was a lone tree near the top, only one, and in case we had any foolish ideas of taking refuge under it a bolt of lightning took aim and split it apart; it went down as if it had been hit by a battle-ax. Trying to reach the rocks, we were held motionless and vertical in our tracks by the wind. Only when the wind lessened for a moment could we move – then we fell forward. With the lessening of the wind the rain became cold and even heavier and forced us to retreat from the battlefield on top. The rain fell on us like a fortified wall falling. By the time we reached the bottom of Meriwether, we were shivering and demoralized and my brother-in-law probably already had pneumonia.

All this was like a demonstration arranged to let us know that Mann Gulch had power over earth, air, and water, as well as fire. As the wind continued to lessen, the rain increased and fell straight down. It was solid now everywhere. It knocked out the motor in our borrowed boat, and we couldn’t get it started again; after a while we didn’t try anymore, and it took several hours to pole and paddle our way back to Hilger Landing. My brother-in-law was seriously sick before we got there; he would never go back to Mann Gulch. So for some time Mann Gulch was mine alone, if I wanted it, and for some time I left it to the elements. I turned to the archives because I knew they would be dry and no wind would be there and the air would be the same air the stacks had been built around and nothing but a book or two had been moved since. The signs would demand “Silence” and even the silence would be musty, and for a time anything musty had an appeal.


I am seriously tempted to leave this passage to stand alone. Below I will make a few notes toward a closer reading of it; but feel free to skip my little words and reread Maclean and go on with your day.


Or, if you want my thoughts:

Here Maclean relates his first attempt to visit Mann Gulch, scene of the decades-old tragedy he wants to write a book about. It is a geographically remote and wild area, not easily reached. He refers several times in Young Men and Fire and in his related notes and letters (in The Norman Maclean Reader) to the “truculent universe,” reluctant to give up its secrets regarding these events. This first visit to the spot itself clearly informs his feeling of the universe’s truculence. Perhaps, he thinks, the archives will be more revealing. (As it turns out, they weren’t, especially.)

These paragraphs are both easy to read, and dense with description. You can feel the weather beating through your computer screen, can’t you? Look at the action verbs, the militarism, the agency attributed to the inanimate storm. It is waiting to challenge; preparing to joust; it rumbles and paws the ground. It tries to beat us back; it takes aim and disabuses us of foolish ideas. The top of the gulch is a battlefield; rain was like a fortified wall falling.

There is comedy: when the wind stopped we were able to move again – we fell forward. (Can you see the slapstick even in this dramatic moment? Does it make you smile?)

All of this was a demonstration – and note Maclean’s reference to the concept behind the title of this book, the elemental forces of earth, air, water, fire (and young men).

In this round of battle, Maclean concedes that the Gulch has won; he retreats to the archives, where the librarians among us are amused and charmed by the air the stacks had been built around, and the appeal of mustiness after such a run-in with the wild outdoors.


I again encourage you to read this amazing book.

What The World’s Strongest Librarian is Reading

Following up on my review of Josh Hanagarne’s new book, The World’s Strongest Librarian, and my interview of the man himself: this section didn’t get printed in Shelf Awareness but I thought my readers might be interested. I certainly was! For one thing, The Black Count is on my list.

So, from our interview conversation: What the World’ Strongest Librarian is Reading.


Josh says, “I read a book almost every day. Because I can’t sleep. It’s really hard for me to go to sleep with the tics, so that’s one of the silver linings, that I get to read so much. I shouldn’t say I read a book every day, but I finish a book almost every day. I read everything from juvenile books to big giant books that I’ll finish after eight days of reading.”

What good books have you read lately?

Truth in Advertising by John Kenney. It has never been this fun to be cynical. Kenney was an insider in advertising and copyrighting in New York, and it is just the most brutal look at the superficial world of advertising, and the storytelling – I really want everybody to go read it.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss is about Alexander Dumas’ father, who was the basis for The Count of Monte Cristo. He was a black man during the Napoleonic campaigns, and he rose to great power in a time when the world and the military were definitely ruled by whites. He winds up being imprisoned for something like 20 years, and the whole time he’s in prison his jailer is trying to poison him. Then it turns into this incredible story, if anything more swashbuckling and gigantic than The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s a crash course in the Napoleonic campaigns that doesn’t feel like a history book. It’s just a wonderful book, the wildest adventure story.

I have been rereading Mark Twain, which I always am.

I just read a University Press book, Conversations with David Foster Wallace, that was quite good. Very theory-intensive, which I don’t enjoy so much anymore, but really good since I’m a fan of Wallace’s.

I just read The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr again.

And, The Twits by Roald Dahl. I just read that with Max. Max is finally old enough to want Roald Dahl. And that has made me happier than anything.”


See more of Josh’s book reviews and related and unrelated writings at his blog, The World’s Strongest Librarian.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Josh Hanagarne

Following yesterday’s review of Josh Hanagarne’s new book, The World’s Strongest Librarian, here’s my interview with the man himself.


Josh Hanagarne: The World’s Strongest Librarian Writes

Josh Hanagarne is from Moab, Utah, and lives with his wife, Janette, and son, Max, in Salt Lake City, where he works at the beautiful main branch of the SLC Public Library. His memoir, The World’s Strongest Librarian, touches on the bizarrely various pieces of his life: his struggles with Tourette Syndrome; his journey to becoming a husband and a father; his love affair with books and libraries that would eventually lead to a career; an obsession with the gym that became a penchant for tearing phone books and full decks of cards; and a less-than-smooth lifelong relationship with the Mormon Church, where he still finds family and friends but less faith than he once held.

worldsstrongest

Your book includes a lot of personal and painful history that belongs not only to you but to your wife and family as well. What was the process for sharing those personal details?

It was hard. During the first draft I didn’t think too much about how people were going to react. When I started going through on the second draft, I started showing things to Janette or to my mom and asking, is this accurate? Is this something you’re okay with having in here? Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. Whenever anybody was mildly uncomfortable with something, I just took it out–nothing of real consequence. I guess when you write a memoir, you choose which periods of your life you’re going to represent, and then you choose which episodes best represent those periods. If you’re a normal person, sometimes that means you’ll look good and sometimes it means you’ll look bad. So that wasn’t fun, but it was honest, I think, without being tedious and self-flagellating.

I’ve always used humor kind of in self-defense, because I knew if I could make people laugh I could make them focus on something other than my tics. I think this book is kind of sad, and I think a lot of humor is rooted in something sad. I believe Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain both talked towards the ends of their lives about having various forms of irony fatigue, because humor was mainly a self-defensive tool for them. I think in any book where you get to pick and choose what you put in, the sadder stuff’s going to get sadder, and the funny stuff’s probably going to get funnier.

You’ve included Dewey classification numbers under each chapter heading. Do you think this resonates with the general population, or mostly just librarians?

I don’t know. I think most people, even if they don’t get it, will probably be intrigued. Some people have pointed out that they don’t all work out exactly the way capital-“L” Librarians think they should, to which I will just say, the numbers do exactly what I want them to do. I think it’s eye-catching. I didn’t necessarily think of it as being gimmicky, because it really does tie in thematically with each chapter. What I really like about it is that you can kind of see what’s coming and yet sometimes not have any clue how one thing will lead to the next.

Tell us about the process of writing this book: When did you write? Were you still working at the library?

This is probably going to disappoint a lot of aspiring writers who put off writing until they have hours of free time every day, but I don’t think I ever sat down and wrote for more than 15 minutes at a time. I just can’t; the tics won’t let me. I wrote whenever I could. I’d guess I rarely wrote more than half an hour total in a day. I do write really fast. I found out that, at least now, I’m the sort of writer who has to make a gigantic mess and then clean it up, because if I start trying to anticipate all the editorial questions on the fly, I just freeze up and I don’t get anything done. So I wrote a lot more to get to this book than I probably could have, if I were another writer. I wrote the first draft totally on my own and then I sent it to my editor, and things had just been going so well that I kind of assumed, yeah, my first draft is surely anyone else’s fourth or fifth. Then my editor sent it back and said, you’ve got to get rid of 120 pages. We can’t even talk yet. Fix this. Which was a great lesson to learn, and not an easy one. But editing was really kind of fun, because Megan [Newman] is really the right editor for me. I think it took three total drafts between us, but about eight on my part. I learned that it takes a hideous amount of work to appear spontaneous. But it was a lot of fun. The shortest way to answer your question is: I wrote every day, I only wrote for a few minutes at a time, and I just kept going. A big part of it is being willing to show up.

Was the writing process cathartic for you?

If this book hadn’t come about, I think I’d probably still be going through the motions in church, trying not to make waves. The ideas I’ve gotten from church have everything to do with my relationship to my body, and the explanations I thought I owed for my life. In writing the book, I realized, I’m actually going to have to deal with this. So I got into the sticky situation of writing a book about how much I love my family and yet gently distancing myself from the church, knowing that that would be painful for my family. That was the biggest catharsis: realizing that I was going to have to deal with that shift in faith. Spending so much time thinking about that, and trying to word it correctly, is what taught me what I actually do think about it all.

Would you say that you had a message or even a cause to communicate with this book, related to Tourette’s, or libraries, or anything else?

I’m not much of a crusader. But when I go speak to groups of people with disabilities, or their parents, or special educators, the reaction I get is so humbling and overwhelming. If people I speak to are actually getting out of this story what they tell me they are, I knew I really needed to do this book as well as I can. So that it can go be me in all the places I can’t be. There’s definitely no downside to spreading the word about Tourette’s. This story seems to inspire some people without me ever needing to claim I can inspire anyone. As far as libraries, obviously this whole book is my love letter to books and libraries. That’s not necessarily what I intended, but for me to write about myself honestly, that’s the only thing that could have happened.

What do you most want people to know about you that’s not in your book?

To entertain my son occasionally in the morning when I put my pants on, I will hold them up at about waist height and I will try to jump into my pants. So I jump all the way up in the air and tuck my knees in and if I do it right, my feet come through the pants and I’m dressed. And if it goes wrong it goes really badly wrong. And about one of every 10 times I can put my pants on this way. Once in a while. You know, one out of 10 might be optimistic.


This interview originally ran on April 9, 2013 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

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