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The Library Book Hardcover – Illustrated, October 16, 2018
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—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“A sheer delight. . . . Orlean has created a book as rich in insight and as varied as the treasures contained on the shelves in any local library.”
—Chris Woodyard, USA Today
“Exquisitely written, consistently entertaining . . . A loving tribute not just to a place or an institution but to an idea . . . What makes The Library Book so enjoyable is the sense of discovery that propels it, the buoyancy when Orlean is surprised or moved by what she finds. . . . Her depiction of the Central Library fire on April 29, 1986, is so rich with specifics that it’s like a blast of heat erupting from the page. . . . The Library Book is about the fire and the mystery of how it started—but in some ways that’s the least of it. It’s also a history of libraries, and of a particular library, as well as the personal story of Orlean and her mother, who was losing her memory to dementia while Orlean was retrieving her own memories by writing this book.”
—Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
“Captivating . . . A delightful love letter to public libraries . . . In telling the story of this one library, Orlean reminds readers of the spirit of them all, their mission to welcome and equalize and inform, the wonderful depths and potential that they—and maybe all of us, as well—contain. . . . In other hands the book would have been a notebook dump, packed with random facts that weren’t germane but felt too hard-won or remarkable to omit. Orlean’s lapidary skills include both unearthing the data and carving a storyline out of the sprawl, piling up such copious and relevant details that I wondered how many mountains of research she discarded for each page of jewels.”
—Rebekah Denn, Christian Science Monitor
“A flitting and meandering masterpiece . . . Compelling and undeniably riveting . . . This is a joyful book, and among its many pleasures is the reader’s ability to palpate the author’s thrill as she zooms down from stratospheric viewings of history, to viscerally detailed observations of events and people, and finally to the kind of irresistibly offbeat facts that create an equally irresistible portrait of the author herself.”
—J. C. Hallman, San Francisco Chronicle
“Vivid . . . Compelling . . . Ms. Orlean interweaves a memoir of her life in books, a whodunit, a history of Los Angeles, and a meditation on the rise and fall and rise of civic life in the United States. . . . By turns taut and sinuous, intimate and epic, Ms. Orlean’s account evokes the rhythms of a life spent in libraries . . . bringing to life a place and an institution that represents the very best of America: capacious, chaotic, tolerant and even hopeful, with faith in mobility of every kind, even, or perhaps especially, in the face of adversity.”
—Jane Kamenski, The Wall Street Journal
“[A] loving encomium to libraries everywhere.”
—Sue Halpern, The New York Review of Books
“A lovely book . . . Susan Orlean has once again found rich material where no one else has bothered to look for it. . . . Once again, she’s demonstrated that the feelings of a writer, if that writer is sufficiently talented and her feelings sufficiently strong, can supply her own drama. You really never know how seriously interesting a subject might be until such a person takes a serious interest in it.”
—Michael Lewis, New York Times Book Review
“A book lover’s dream . . . This is an ambitiously researched, elegantly written book that serves as a portal into a place of history, drama, culture, and stories.”
—Jeffrey Ann Goudie, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“When Susan Orlean fishes for a story, she reels in a hidden world. And so the latest delightful trawl from the author of Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief starts with the tale of the 1986 fire that damaged or destroyed 700,000 books in the Los Angeles Central Library. But The Library Book pans out quickly to the fractious, eccentric history of the institution and then, almost inevitably, a reflection on the past, present, and future of libraries in America. Orlean follows the narrative in all directions, juxtaposing the hunt for the library arsonist—possibly a frustrated actor—with a philosophical treatise on why and how libraries became the closest thing many of us experience to a town hall.”
—Hillary Kelly, New York Magazine
About the Author
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This book has her signature combination of threads that add up to a whole: we hear about the horrendous fire at the LA main library, we trace the early history of the library and its colorful head librarians, we hear about the issues that face libraries today (homeless users) and we hear about the puzzling self-contradictory man who was accused of but probably did not start the library fire. Orleans knows that people like to read about other interestisng people, so she switches among library staff, the arson suspect and his family, and current library staff.
She also knows that people like to get the inside story about institutions and places we mostly see from the outside as customers or users. So we get plenty of both. Sure you probably knew that being able to reserve books over the Internet vastly increased the resources devoted to shipping books from branch to branch, but Orlean makes it concrete by visiting the LA library shipping facility. And so on. As with Orlean, there's not a word out of place or a non-telling detail.
So if you care about libraries at all, this is the book for you. Perhaps introducing each chapter with a few catalog entries (I almost said catalog cards, but there are no such things any more) is a bit cute, but it doesn't really get in the way. And if you thought her previous book about Rin Tin Tin wasn't up to her best, don't worry. This one definitely is.
Top international reviews
The story of John Szabo runs parallel to the story of Harry Peak. The latter was the suspected arsonist who burned down the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986. Szabo was the man who rebuilt it. The story of the great Los Angeles fire underpins Orlean’s book, and following it makes the reader wonder at times to think she was writing a crime thriller.
Orlean knows that one cannot tell the story about the library, which is the body, without discussing the soul within – the books. She also weaves into this book, books about books and libraries, and one of them is the biopic of Ray Bradbury and his novel about the burning of books, ‘Fahrenheit 451’; and, of course, about librarians. The most prominent being John Szabo, aka ‘Conan the Librarian’. Orleans takes us through the burning of libraries in war, but reminded us that ‘libraries burn during peacetimes too’. There are, she says, about 200 library fires a year in America alone.
As if to contrast the work and person of John Szabo, Orleans intersperse the Szabo-Peak story with the story of Charles Lummis and the scandals that followed, notably, the appointment of a unusual person, known as C J K Jones, to head a special department of reading. Jones had a collection of more than 200 books on the cultivation of citrus farming. He was paid a fat salary and given the title of ‘The Human Encyclopedia’. When he was eventually forced to take a civil service test to ascertain his fitness for the job, he flunked.
But what of Harry Peak? That should remain the highlight of this book. The CD version is read passionately by the author herself.
I found the book extremely rich in its description of libraries and their evolution across history. The books seemed exceptionally well researched and touched on many different aspects. The author also managed to keep the book engaging, which is challenging given the sometimes dry history of libraries. My only criticism would be that the book sometimes feels like a piece of extremely long-form journalism that collects different aspects of the library topic but does not fully integrate them. Still, this book is a great read for any bibliophile or bibliotheekophile.
The book is detailed and thoroughly researched and makes for an interesting exploration of libraries past, present and future.
However, for me I found myself not really sure what a lot of the book had to do with the central story of the library fire. There is a great level of inconsistency in the length of chapters and this made it hard to read at times.