If I still worked in a bookstore and you, dear reader, just stepped into the store and asked if there were anything that must be read, right now, I would grab a copy of Susan Orlean’s latest book and wave it in your direction.
In “The Library Book,” Orlean sets out to learn what she could about the April 1986 fire that did a fair job of consuming the Los Angeles Central Library. Was it arson? Was the right person arrested?
It’s not only Orlean’s prowess as a journalist (who else could write bestsellers about orchids and Rin Tin Tin?), it is also her ability to keep her readers asking for more each time her curiosity takes another turn that makes this book special.
Yes, we want to know if the quirky Harry Peak (wannabe actor and habitual fabricator) really set the fire, but as Orlean branches out into a range of other topics tied to libraries, we also want to know about the physics of fire and especially exactly how a book burns.
If you are a science geek, she will not disappoint. On the other hand, just as interesting is Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fireman” and its impact on the reading world when it morphed into “Fahrenheit 451.”
Orlean’s attachment to books and libraries is deeply rooted in her warmly remembered days spent with her mother on their many trips to her local library, a branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library system in Cleveland. For all the many directions taken in “The Library Book,” Orlean never strays too far from the disastrous fire of 1986. But you also learn about the building’s history, its legacy of pioneering female librarians and their politically motivated removal, the library’s ground-breaking architecture and its increasing lack of fire protection.
Firemen and how such fires are fought lead us to wonder if we readers are safe in our libraries. (No spoiler here, but I was surprised to find a hot link between firefighters and arsonists.)
Orlean does not shy away from the state of our modern libraries relative to the state of communication through the Internet and its warehousing of information no librarian could ever have imagined. Will public libraries, as dreamed by Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, become an anachronistic page of our past? Orlean does an outstanding job of speaking to this subject.
I suspect that many of us would be astounded at the services offered by the women and men who devote their lives to the belief that free access to information, events, classes and much more offered at our public libraries is the bedrock of a civilized society.
“The Library Book” is not to be missed. When you finish the book, head to your nearest library and acquaint yourself with a future worth supporting and then join a Friends of the Library organization in support of your local library branch.
Sunny Solomon is a freelance writer and head of the Clayton Book Club. Visit her website at
bookinwithsunny.com for her latest recommendations or just to ‘talk books.’