Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Meandering history of the Los Angeles Public Library
In 1986, the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library almost burnt to the ground. The largest library fire in American history destroyed or damaged over a million books. Local authorities ruled the cause of the fire as arson, but no one was ever convicted of the crime. Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, learned about the fire after moving to Los Angeles in 2011. She decided to do some research into this tragic event, and the result is The Library Book, published in 2018. The marketing copy for this book leads one to believe this is a true-crime book focusing on the fire and the investigation that followed, as well as some institutional history into how the library recovered from the damage. It is all that, and more. Orlean casts a very wide net that encompasses the entire history of the Los Angeles Public Library while veering off into several tenuous digressions.

Throughout the book Orlean asserts the importance of libraries to their community, not just in L.A. but throughout the United States. Orlean is obviously a lover of libraries and a strong advocate for them. I am also a library enthusiast, have a library science degree, and often read books on the history and present state of libraries. Even though I would consider myself the target audience for this book, I still found it rather boring and underwhelming. The most interesting portions of the book cover the L.A. library’s early history and the quirky characters who directed the institution through the early twentieth century. Orlean’s accounts of her recent visits to the library are laden with praise and amazement but offer few surprises. She writes about libraries as if she’s writing for someone who’s never set foot in one. There is much stating of the obvious here, though to Orlean’s credit, her book provides a more insightful overview of what librarians actually do than Marilyn Johnson’s frivolous exposition of the profession, This Book Is Overdue!

Another problem with the book is that in addition to the history and the investigative journalism, Orlean feels the need to make this a memoir, so one gets to hear a lot about her personal thoughts and feelings on libraries, which aren’t necessarily any more valid or articulate than the reader’s own. In one such first-person chapter Orlean wants to know how it feels to burn a book, as if that would put her inside the mind of an arsonist. Instead, it just feels like pointless self-indulgence or a means of padding the page count. A chapter on the worldwide history of book burning is more interesting, but it still feels like a stretch to equate political book burning with pyromaniacal arson. In regard to the arson itself, Orlean provides a mini-biography of the prime suspect, whom she oddly tries to make into some sort of tragic hero. Harry Peak was never convicted of the arson, and the evidence against him was circumstantial, so the true-crime narrative feels disappointingly inconclusive. If Peak did commit the crime, then Orlean treats him far too sympathetically. If he didn’t commit the crime, then the in-depth attention paid to him seems rather unnecessary.

If you live in Los Angeles and feel a connection to your Public Library, then by all means read this book. You will likely enjoy it very much. Those who live elsewhere, however, no matter how much you love books and libraries, won’t necessarily feel a connection to Orlean’s meandering love letter to L.A.’s central branch. Library professionals, who would usually love a book like this, may find Orlean’s coverage of the field too elementary to educate and too bland to entertain.

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