The Library Book

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Reading The Library Book by Susan Orlean put me in mind of the braids I used to do with my hair. One strand begins with the fire alarm on April 29, 1986 at the Los Angeles Public Library. The second strand follows the most noted suspect Harry Peak, and the third strand uses that library to incorporate the history of libraries and their importance to our lives. The author cleverly begins each chapter with a sampling of books with the author and their checkout numbers.  

The fire, thought to be arson, consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. The seven-hour fire had temperatures that reached 2,000 degrees. Condolences poured in from across the United States and around the world. Susan records other library fires, many of them also set deliberately, and compares them to this one. She concludes that war is the greatest slayer of libraries with some of the destruction incidental and some intentional.   

Suspect Harry Peak entertains as investigators return to him repeatedly only to get an embellished or different story each time about his whereabouts at the time of the fire. Witnesses who may or may not have seen him there also tell variations of what they saw and when they saw it. This mystery, the second strand of the tale, keeps the reader and the detectives guessing.

Her look at the library itself was quite up to date, including the 2015 Ezra Jack Keats Award winner, The Bear Ate Your Sandwich, in the bin to forward to another branch.  She did reach back to the history and sprinkled her account with interesting rules. For instance, when the library opened in 1873, women were not allowed to use the main facilities but a “Ladies Room” with some magazines was soon added. Children not able to use the library at all. What were they thinking?

The staff showed up to work the day after the fire not knowing exactly what work entailed, and soon were joined by volunteers. The strand of her story that details how important all libraries are and how the Los Angeles Public Library became functional with help from corporations and individuals forms the last fascinating strand of her tale.  

This book is nonfiction, but feels like a good novel that switches back and forth between characters leaving you wanting more of the one you just left.