Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

I can’t say this is a perfect book, but it’s one of my favorites of the year, and it’s a book I’ll recommend to a lot of people.  After all, it’s a book devoted to one of my favorite places: the public library.  It’s not only an in-depth look at how a large library system works, but it’s also about the history of Los Angeles and how a public library changes people’s lives.  Orlean made me want to go visit the Central Library – I’d been there in 2001 for an exhibit of Wizard of Oz memorabilia, and now I need to go there again.

Orlean frames this book by talking about her own childhood experience in a library, and the experience she has taking her young son to the library for the first time.  For me, libraries have always felt like home, and it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who has been touched by them.

Reading this book gave me a better understanding why libraries are such a special place – it’s not just the books, though it’s mostly the books. It’s also the environment in the library, the comfy chairs, the readings, the helpful librarians.  And, importantly, it’s because the books are FREE, and if you’re a child in a household where money is tight, the incredible feeling of joy and freedom that gives you.  It’s maybe the only place where a child can go to get something they treasure so much, at absolutely no cost. 

What also struck me is the freedom a library gives you – as a child you get to run off into the stacks, away from adult eyes, and lose yourself in the books.  No one’s telling you what to read or how to choose.  You may have a limit of how many you can check out, but the exploration and the choice is up to you.

I knew what it was like to want a book and to buy it, but I had forgotten what it felt like to amble among the library shelves, finding the book I was looking for but also seeing who its neighbors were, noticing their peculiar concordance, and following an idea as it was handed off from one book to the next, like a game of telephone.

Orlean focuses this book on the fire that occurred at the L.A. Central Library in the 1980s.  She begins her story by writing in great detail about how the fire consumed the building and the books and materials within it.  She writes about how many books were lost and damaged, and how many people worked around the clock to save books with fire or water damage.  She writes about how many people were devastated by this event, in a way you might not expect, for a fire that didn’t actually take any lives, only reading material.

Orlean spends a good chunk of the book on the history of the LA library system and the Central Library itself, including a detailed history of the earliest Head Librarians beginning in the 1880s (surprisingly, some of them were women). She loses me a little in this part, which I just felt was too much detail in a book that covers many different topics. Although I found the history of the building, built in 1926, fascinating.

Then she focuses on the arson case itself, which was really interesting and which took a turn I didn’t see coming.  One of the most interesting parts of the book is where Orlean explores how arson is investigated and what we actually know about how fires start — which is much less than I realized.  I always thought arson is like gunshot evidence or little black boxes – the evidence tells you everything you need to know.  In fact, the evidence is often weak or misleading, or misrepresented in court.

Orlean writes quite a bit about the operation and the many uses of the library throughout the book.  I was really interested in the different types of collections the library houses, like historical maps and Hollywood memorabilia, and how those came about.  Coincidentally, as I was reading this book, I also heard a fantastic This American Life that’s also about the power of libraries.  If this book moved you, check it out. For anyone who thinks libraries aren’t needed any more, it will remind you of the many things libraries do for people.

A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.

This is my first read by Orlean, so I can’t say if this book is typical of her other work. She writes in a very accessible way and presented a LOT of information in a short space. Sometimes I felt she jumped around a bit too much across topics, and sometimes I felt she spent too much time on a topic. 

But taken altogether, this was a moving and informative book, and one I hope most people will read.  It reminded me why libraries are so important.

Note: I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge and the Read Harder 2019 Challenge (a book by a journalist and a book about a nonviolent true crime).

  18 comments for “Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

  1. April 20, 2019 at 9:21 am

    I love libraries!

  2. April 20, 2019 at 10:58 am

    Every time I read a review of this book, I’m surprised and impressed with what others got from it and it makes me feel like I need to reread it. It was just such a stellar, meaningful book, one of my favorites from last year. Great to hear your take on it, and thanks for the This American Life suggestion, I missed that episode (always so behind on them) so going to give it a listen.

    • April 21, 2019 at 6:23 pm

      I’m glad you liked the book so much! You will love the podcast, it has three really interesting stories that go nicely with this book.

  3. April 20, 2019 at 7:02 pm

    I got bored with this book, mostly because it focuses SO MUCH on the Los Angeles library. I thought it was about libraries in general. There was a lot of interesting things in it for sure, but it dragged for me. My favorite part of it, though, is just what you said — I never realized all the many, MANY ways a library helps a community.

    Great review!


    • April 21, 2019 at 6:28 pm

      It was definitely hard to tell what this book was going to focus on, especially from its title! I’ve spent a lot of time in LA so the history was interesting for me, and I liked this book better for being about a place I know. I found the investigation pretty interesting too.

  4. April 21, 2019 at 5:26 pm

    I was the other way round – I loved the stories about the head librarians and could have done with a bit less about the architecture – but overall I think you felt much the same about this book as I did!

    • April 21, 2019 at 6:25 pm

      I can see how the building might be less interesting for most people – I love visiting Frank Lloyd Wright homes and turn of the century art and architecture, so I’m probably unusual in that regard. I’m glad you liked the book!

  5. April 21, 2019 at 6:10 pm

    Great review! I thought this was a brilliant book and I’m recommending it 😀

  6. April 25, 2019 at 9:52 pm

    A friend gave me this book for Christmas but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. I’m going to have to move it up on my TBR list!

    • May 1, 2019 at 8:40 pm

      Thanks for commenting – this would be an excellent book to give as a gift, and I really hope you enjoy it.

  7. April 30, 2019 at 3:58 pm

    What a great review! It would be great if you would share this with everyone over at Books You Loved: May edition. Cheers from Carole’s Chatter

    • May 1, 2019 at 8:38 pm

      I will Carole, thanks for the suggestion!

  8. May 1, 2019 at 8:30 pm

    I really am excited anticipating getting this book from my own library—I’m on the wait list for the audio version. I like the mix of history and memoir and musing on why libraries are important to us individually and as a society. I read The Orchid Thief by the same author, which I thought quite good.

    • May 1, 2019 at 8:37 pm

      Jane, I hope you love it! Does Orlean read her own book? It is really a nice mix of topics, and it seems like everyone responds more to different parts of it – something for everyone.

  9. June 28, 2019 at 7:25 pm

    I also really enjoyed this book and I’ve already been recommending it to people! I found the different collections at the library fascinating too and will have to check out that podcast episode. I didn’t think The Orchid Thief was quite as well done as this book, but I still thought it was a fun read with lots of great fun facts.

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