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Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Hey all, Dani here.

I originally intended to include this review during my National Library Week celebration on my blog. However, considering the date of the tragic fire that this book centers around, I thought it perhaps even more fitting to delay it a few days and have the post go up today.

Work is still super stressful and because so many people have taken the company up on the whole unpaid leave offering, we are having to consolidate different areas so that we can continue with business as usual. But it isn’t really usual, because most of us are working in areas we haven’t before. My body is vehemently protesting how hard I’m working. So yeah, there’s still two more days in my work week, but I’m definitely looking forward to the weekend already.

Okay, let’s jump into the review.

The Library Book

Book Details

Format: Paperback

Pages: 310

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date: October 1, 2019

ISBN: 1476740194 (ISBN13: 9781476740195)


On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.

In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.

Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.

Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.

My Thoughts

Rating: 5 stars

I took this book to work with me the day I started reading it, and within the first couple pages I knew that was a huge mistake. In the first dozen pages I think I started tearing up at least a half-dozen times. This was a book that got to me in a very deep and profound way.

Is it because I related to the story Susan Orlean told at the very beginning about being a young child and going to the library with her mom? Well, yes a bit. Is it because I have spent my life obsessed with libraries? Again, yes, a bit. Is it because I remember learning about library practices and procedures, as well as book care and maintenance, and archival practices, and I recognized the horror and ramifications of an event like this? Absolutely.

This is a book that will definitely strike the hearts of those who love books and who love libraries.

It has many personal anecdotes from Susan Orlean about her own life and library experiences, but then it also has so many well-researched facts and figures, as well as interviews from many people who were there around the time of the fire. Oh the fire. Reading about an event that happened two years before I was born was immensely intense. Like, I remember talking in brief about the Library of Alexandria in school as a tragedy and all that, but I do not recall this massively destructive library fire being mentioned at all. And because it happened so much more recently, it hit me in a much more visceral way.

I’m probably going to read this book again later this year, because I don’t know if I fully processed everything going on in these pages. But oh was this a book I will cherish for a good long while.

Where to Get a Copy

You can grab your own copy of this book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-million, Book Depository, or your local independent bookstore through IndieBound.

You can also check with your local library.

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