True crime and a library history collide in Susan Orlean’s masterpiece of creative nonfiction The Library Book, a work that so deftly defies categorization it’s almost impossible to comprehensively review.
The Library Book is the story of the Los Angeles Public Library fire in 1986, but expands beyond that to explore the role of libraries in society. Orlean investigates the fire - suspected to be arson - and explains exactly what happens when books burn, whether from a criminal act, in an accident, or as an act of war. Laced into this narrative are anecdotes from her own childhood and adult life, offering a glimpse into why she feels so passionate about libraries and the path that led her to write about the L.A. fire.
Orlean, whose book The Orchid Thief was also a runaway bestseller and adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep, is one of the best descriptive writers alive. There’s no experience, thought or abstract concept she can’t whittle down into a beautifully strung together sentence. The beauty of her storytelling comes not only from the originality and obscurity of the stories she chooses to tell, but how she uses such lyrical prose to tell them. Even the most dense historical passages in The Library Book read like a gripping thriller or time-period drama. Even the most apprehensive source becomes a detailed, riveting character under the influence of Orlean’s pen.
While I try to avoid using the first person too often in my reviews, I’ve found - over approximately 8 hours of attempting to write a review for this book - that it can’t be avoided in this specific case. There’s something about The Library Book that was so personal and relatable to me that it’s impossible to explain it without talking about how it made me feel. And it made me feel quite a lot of things. The first being nostalgia. Nostalgia for family trips to the library when I was a kid, but more so nostalgia for a time when I didn’t even exist yet - for a time when the Library of Alexandria was still standing, or before the Nazi’s burned so many Jewish and German books, a time when libraries were just starting to change education and literacy across the world.
The Library Book will take you a long time to read, and not because you’re not invested in the story, but because so many of the facts and anecdotes will make you snap your head up, approach the person closest to you, and say something along the lines of “you have GOT to hear this.” From stories about the squabbles of Los Angeles librarians to tales of water-logged books being stored in a frozen fish plant, The Library Book will captivate your imagination and make you desperate to visit your local library.
I’m not the only person who’s felt so strongly about this wonderful book. To provide a metric its popularity, I’ll share a little story of my own experiences with my public library - a place I may as well live in at this point considering how frequently I visit. I often reserve books I’m interested in reading online through the Halifax library system. If there’s more than one person interested in reading the book, I join a queue of people and wait my turn. Quite a lot of the books I read have no queue at all, either because they’re older or because they’re slightly more obscure. But some books have queue’s that take the better part of a year to get through. Before getting in line for The Library Book, the longest queue I’d joined had been 46 readers. When I joined the queue for this book, months after it had been published, I was number 215 in line. For reference, Michelle Obama’s memoir had 300 readers in line before me when I joined the list.
Perhaps it’s a slightly lazy thing for a reviewer to say, but you really need to read this book for yourself. There’s so much more I could say about it, but I doubt it would do justice to this magnificent piece of work.