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In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned.
The reading of the book was a journey. There was no need for souvenirs.
Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.
The Library Book Paperback – Deckle Edge, October 1, 2019
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Editors' pick: Orlean can peer through the keyhole of a seemingly picayune topic and see endless fascination on the other side of the door."—Jon Foro, Amazon Editor
—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 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
“Like an amble through the rooms and the stacks of a library, where something unexpected and interesting can be discovered on any page.”
—Scott Simon, NPR’s Weekend Edition
“Mesmerizing . . . A riveting mix of true crime, history, biography, and immersion journalism. . . . Probing, prismatic, witty, dramatic, and deeply appreciative, Orlean’s chronicle celebrates libraries as sanctuaries, community centers, and open universities run by people of commitment, compassion, creativity, and resilience.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Engaging . . . Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.”
“Of course, I will always read anything that Susan Orlean writes—and I would encourage you to do the same, regardless of the topic, because she’s always brilliant. But The Library Book is a particularly beautiful and soul-expanding book—even by Orleanean standards. You’re going to hear a lot about how important this story is, for shining a spotlight on libraries and the heroic people who run them. That’s all true, but there’s an even better reason to read it—because it will keep you spellbound from first page to last. Don’t miss out on this one, people!" —Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love and Big Magic
“This is a book only Susan Orlean could have written. Somehow she manages to transform the story of a library fire into the story of literacy, civil service, municipal infighting and vision, public spaces in an era of increasingly privatization and social isolation, the transformation of Los Angeles from small provincial hamlet to innovative collossus and model of civic engagement—and the central role libraries have always and will always play in the life and health of a bustling democracy. Beyond all that, like any good library, it’s bursting with incredible tales and characters. There could be no better book for the bookish.”
—Dave Eggers, author of The Circle and The Monk of Mokha
“Susan Orlean has long been one of our finest storytellers, and she proves it again with The Library Book. A beautifully written and richly reported account, it sheds new light on a thirty-year-old mystery—and, what’s more, offers a moving tribute to the invaluableness of libraries.”
—David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z
“After reading Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, I’m quite sure I’ll never look at libraries, or librarians, the same way again. This is classic Orlean—an exploration of a devastating fire becomes a journey through a world of infinite richness, populated with unexpected characters doing unexpected things, with unexpected passion.”
—Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts, and Dead Wake
- Publisher : Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (October 1, 2019)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 336 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1476740194
- ISBN-13 : 978-1476740195
- Item Weight : 9.9 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.63 x 0.6 x 8.38 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #9,455 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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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 reviews from other countries
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.