REVIEW: Susan Orlean Has Done It: A Can't-Put-Down Book About . . . Libraries


The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Simon & Schuster, 336 pp.

By Ann Fabian            

The Library Book is a book for every reader and every writer.  It’s a masterful tribute to libraries, and, even better, it has a plot and a storyline. 

On April 29, 1986, a fire consumed or damaged more than a million books in the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.  We didn’t hear much about the library fire.  A near apocalypse at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor drove the fire to the back pages of American newspapers.   “The books burned,” Orlean writes, “while most of us were waiting to see if we were about to witness the end of the world.”

The world didn’t end, or not yet; the Los Angeles Public Library survived; and we are lucky to have lived long enough for Susan Orlean to write a book that begins with that library fire but delivers a lot more.  Readers of her Orchid Thief (1998), Rin Tin Tin (2011) and her many New Yorker profiles know that Orlean can start with a Florida orchid man and deliver a book on botany and the Seminole Wars, or can start with a plaster dog on her grandfather’s desk and give us a book about World War I, early Hollywood, and dog breeders in Texas.  

I like to think of Orlean as some kind of agent, hired to work for our restless curiosity.  Go to the swamp with those machete-wielding convicts.  Swat the mosquitoes.  Get up at dawn with the surfer girls.  Find your way to the dog cemetery outside Paris.  Open the long-locked storage unit.  Be brave.  Follow the story.     

In The Library Book, the fire that nearly destroys a collection, leads Orlean to histories of libraries and Los Angeles and to an exploration of the physics of how a book burns.  There’s a suspected arsonist at the center of the story, but the hero is the library along with its collections of books, maps, menus, autographs and marionettes.   “I liked the idea that the library is more expansive and grand than one single mind, and that it requires many people together to form a complete index of its bounty.”    

Like Frederick Wiseman’s documentary, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017), The Library Book watches a library being remade for the digital age.  Critics noticed the absence of books in Wiseman’s movie; people looked at screens, borrowed computers, looked for jobs, and listened to famous people talk about the books they’d written.  But no one sat at a library table and read a book.    

Orlean has a different idea of a library book.  Though she describes the library morphing its way through the digital turn, books still matter. “Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage—the writer’s belief that someone could find his or her book important to read.  I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them.”  

In the days following the fire, volunteers drove downtown to pack up the water-soaked books, as mold waited to destroy what flames did not.   Freeze the books, the experts said.  Fish processing plants in Long Beach opened their freezers. Books were stacked between frozen shrimp and broccoli florets, Orlean tells us.

Describing fish processing and celebrity telethons, Orlean sets out a version of southern California’s history.  The library building, designed by architect Bertram Goodhue, opened in 1926.  It witnessed California’s twentieth-century transformations—the growth of Hollywood, the bust of the Depression, the boom of the Second World War, shifts in ethnic communities, radio, television, teenagers, hippies, earthquakes, gentrification, poverty and homelessness.

Orlean knows California’s light and its landscapes, its way of taking in eccentric characters.  She describes architect Goodhue, “slim and debonair, with a girlish complexion, a cresting wave of yellowy hair, and an air of impending tragedy”; head-strong women librarians building collections; librarian Charles Fletcher Lummis walking all the way from Cincinnati to head-up the institution; and finally, Harry Peak, the would-be actor with a good head of hair who was accused of setting the library on fire. 

The library absorbs it all.  “Every problem that society has, the library has, too, because the boundary between society and the library is porous; nothing good is kept out of the library, and nothing bad.” 

Yet there is a promise in The Library Book. “All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here is my story, please listen; here I am, please tell me your story.”  Orlean’s stories are more than library stories, of course.  They stretch out through human history, draw in colorful characters, settle in southern California, and come back to her own family.

Reading The Library Book, I dredged up my own small library story, my private experience in a library’s public space.  Let this paragraph return my thanks, more than a half-century over due, to Miss Stickney, the children’s librarian at the Santa Catalina branch of the Pasadena Public Library (999 E. Washington Blvd.).  Each fall, Miss Stickney introduced herself by pointing a stick at her knee. That’s how you’ll remember my name, she said.  Of course, we did and we do. 

We were a roomful of grade-schoolers, temporarily freed from parents and learning things of our own.  Once each year, Miss Stickney also brought out Holling C. Holling, a long-legged, white-haired man with a name as memorable as her own.   Holling would read to us -- Paddle to the Sea and then Minn of the Mississippi.  It amazed us that the man who wrote those books lived in Pasadena and that Miss Stickney had tempted him out to the children’s room to read them to us.

A few years ago, at a sorry moment for public institutions, I decided to give money to the branch libraries of the New York Public Library.  Libraries have never hurt anyone, I thought.  Finishing The Library Book, I’ll double my donation. 

Ann Fabian is president of the Society of American Historians.