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.