Review: The Library Book

Occasionally a book comes along that seems as though it was written just for you as a reader. As though the author looked into your mind, saw all things that you wished for and set about the task of putting it on the page.

Susan Orlean’s The Library Book is one of these.

I happened upon an online listing for it, read the plot synopsis and got very excited indeed. Then to my disappointment I realised I had to wait months for its release. It felt like a very long time but luckily it was well worth it.

A mystery. A history. A literary romance. It has it all.

The Library Book tells the story of the devastating fire at the Los Angeles Public Library on 29 April 1986 that destroyed hundreds of thousands of books and damaged many more – a literary tragedy. It takes a look at the man accused of starting the fire – Harry Peak – and the case (or lack thereof) against him. It also talks about the founding and development of the Library in Los Angeles as well as focusing on the librarians and characters that worked there over the years, what libraries mean to the public and how they have changed with the times.

While this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, for me it was book nirvana.

You can certainly tell that the author loves books, reading and libraries, a love born in her childhood and carried on throughout her life. She even says as much in the opening stanzas. This book is almost a commemoration of those feelings, a thank you for the many hours of joy spent between the pages and the stacks. It has been referred to by other reviewers as a ‘love letter’ and I would agree with that.

This love makes Orlean’s descriptions of the burning of the books feel very real and frankly, distressing. You fully understand the pain and anguish felt by the librarians as they watched the building and its contents burn, as they tried to process the events and cope with the aftermath. While they were not physically harmed I got the distinct impression they were emotionally scarred by it all.

I have to say, thankfully, this is no ordinary, run of the mill true crime book. 

Despite the author’s obvious interest in the possible firestarter, as Alexander Larmen says in his review for the Guardian, ‘this is not a book about an unsolved crime’. Harry Peak, the man in question, is just one of the many interesting characters that populate the book’s pages. Yes – he was the only man arrested and charged with the crime (never convicted it must be pointed out). Despite this Orlean offers no personal opinion on his guilt and while that aspect of the story features – who was responsible – it does not dominate or overpower everything else. You become interested in him as a person in his own right, separate from the fire, and I felt some sadness when she described his last months.

One of the major aspects of the book that I loved and very much appreciated was the way the author incorporated the development of the city of Los Angeles and how she made the city and it’s residents characters in of themselves. I love reading about the history of a place, not just facts and figures but how a city’s identity is born and grows. Orlean manages to weave this throughout the writing to such a successful degree that I sought out an actual history of Los Angeles that I read and enjoyed. The time taken to include this, for me at least, contributes so much to the flavour of the overall story and makes it a more complete tale.

I had a lot of high expectations when it came to this book but I am so happy to say that it lived up to them all. I was enthralled from beginning to end and felt privileged to have experienced the tale with the author. Every word was a treat. 

This is one of my books of the year and a highly recommended read.

(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)

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