The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Simon & Schuster, 2018; 318 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
Libraries take on an intriguing and magical nature in the latest from Susan Orlean, titled The Library Book. Orlean knows that everyone probably has a library story, from the whispers and hushes to the stern but caring librarian who introduced us to our first selection from Seuss or Steinbeck, but where Orlean delightfully detours is to give us her stories of libraries, as a gift to her mother first and foremost but also as a gift to the reader. Orlean, who is known for her writings on quirk and circumstance, picks one of the quirkiest of all libraries in terms of history and setting in the Los Angeles Public Library. She focuses primarily on the Central branch of that library, from its auspicious early days as one of the rare libraries to possess female leadership, to its history of colorful locations and subsequent directors, to its final resting place designed by the man who never was to see it built, to its now infamous fire on April 28, 1986, news missed by most everyone outside of Los Angeles at the time due to the catastrophe at Chernobyl.
In addition to the crazy collection of facts and history of both the Los Angeles Public Library and libraries in general, however, Orlean’s book is an exploration of the humanity that’s often overlooked in the evocation of visions of dusty shelves and shushed patrons. She writes of the homeless, some in great detail and others in stories that could be told just in their nicknames. She writes of security guards, libraries, special collections curators, researchers, and writers. She writes of Ray Bradbury’s use of the Los Angeles Public Library and their rental typewriters to complete Fahrenheit 451, and how a published copy of that book was burned in the fire in 1986. (Orlean also conducts a burn test of her own for researching The Library Book, and the guinea pig is…Fahrenheit 451.) Orlean’s vision of what the library is paying homage to travels beyond the greats, however:
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 are 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 he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage—the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read.
None but Orlean would know more about crazy courage than most of us readers based on most of her past subjects, but here she is, giving us the courage of writers and books and media and humanity found in the stacks of libraries, and giving us that courage with a sense of gape-eyed wonder. Toward the beginning of the book Orlean admits to having more of a crush on bookstores than libraries after college, but by the last page of this study she is deeply in love with libraries, knowing full well that all of the stories contained within the library, and all of the libraries containing stories, can’t be offered up for sale like the stories on the shelves of a bookstore. Out of print or in print, sometimes a reader gets lucky, and still finds that story at the library: therein lies the superpower of the library.