The Library Book
In Los Angeles, which “has had its share of strange nights”, the public Central Library is a microcosm of the city. In 1986 it caught fire and was wrapped in flames that lasted seven hours and destroyed or damaged more than a million books. Susan Orlean’s latest work of very literary nonfiction reopens the mystery of the fire and uses a true crime technique to tell the story of a treasured institution.
“People have been burning libraries,” she writes, “for nearly as long as they’ve been building libraries.” In The Library Book Orlean explores a hundred aspects of history, civics and literature, just as she is losing her mother – who first took Orlean to a library and gave her a love for them – to dementia.
For Orlean, the puzzle of the fire-ravaged library is part of “the looping, unending story of who we are”. Her subjects range from emerald-haired teenagers checking out graphic novels, through taupe-suited businessmen leafing through travel guides, to Harry Peak, blond, gay and ditzy, with a haunted past and delusions of Hollywood grandeur: the library’s suspected arsonist, a man of a million contradictory alibis. She lingers lovingly on the details: the catalogue of restaurant menus lost to the flames, the fact that alien conspiracy books are those least likely to be borrowed and returned, and the life of vagabond reporter Charles Lummis who in the early 20th century came to run the LA library.
In his 2002 film Adaptation, a fictionalised Charlie Kaufman struggled to transform Orlean’s bestseller The Orchid Thief for the screen. A film version of The Library Book might run into similar strife – it’s more an absorbing, winding monologue than it is a documentary mystery drama. At one point she describes the eye travelling along the titles on a library bookshelf, a progression of thought both logical and mysterious. And reading this book is a bit like that – you never know where Orlean will go next or why.
Orlean has written a testament to the library as “a place to soften solitude” – she loves the stillness, the sense of purpose, and the feeling that books are quite alive. As Ray Bradbury said in his dystopian, book-burning/book-saving Fahrenheit 451, “the magic is only in what books say”.
In her massive meandering merry-go-round about the LA library, Orlean reminds us that Bradbury finished his novel in just nine days, sitting in a library.
Atlantic, 336pp, $29.99
CORRECTION: In The Saturday Paper’s print edition, this review was incorrectly attributed to Kirsten Krauth.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 26, 2019 as "Susan Orlean, The Library Book". Subscribe here.