Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 318 pages

Published: October 16, 2018

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Genre:  Nonfiction, HistorySynopsis:

In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.

Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.


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When you discover a book about a book, you feel like your whole world is complete. Here is a book about your favorite subject. It feels like you are floating on cloud nine. So you snuggle in your favorite chair, make a cup of tea and start immersing yourself into the book world. But what happens when that world turns out to be all it is not cracked up to be? Then you are lead down a disappointing road.

I heard so much praise behind The Library Book by Susan Orlean. So I was a little disappointed that this book didn’t live up to the hype. The history behind the Los Angeles Central Library and the tragic fire that gutted half of its collection in 1986 was written very well. Orlean writes in a narrative voice. Half of the time you forget you are reading a nonfiction book and not a novel. I discovered things about the history of the librarianship field that I never knew about. The investigation of the devastating fire was also an eye-opening experience. I felt myself trying to connect the dots and figure out who the true culprit was. Heavily detailed, the nonlinear writing style may throw some readers and deter them from being interested in the story.

However, the biggest problem I had with this book is the inaccurate portrayal of librarians. Maybe because the author only focused on one public library system, but I felt that Orlean’s idea of the librarianship field was one-sided. It felt like she really didn’t research or take the chance of discovering what the librarianship field is really like. For example, she discusses librarians annual salary and how they live “comfortably”. The cost of living in Los Angeles is extremely high, so how are these librarians living well? And what about the rest of the world? There are some librarian positions that are part-time or public libraries, like in the UK, where there are closing left to right. The issues of libraries were completely covered up passed over for a more positive portrayal.

Orlean was more focused on the idyllic idea of libraries instead of a more accurate depiction. Because I am a librarian I may be a little prejudiced, however, because I am a librarian I have an idea what I am talking about. The ideas in this book are one-sided. If there is going to be a book discussing libraries and the field, it needs to be well-rounded. You need to talk, I mean really talk, to librarians about what they are going through and discuss that fully, not what you think people want to hear. I can understand why library managements highly praise this book. It reproduces the continued facade of what they want the public to see. Orlean had many opportunities to really look underneath the makeup but she continued to fail miserably.

A library that literally rose from the ashes, The Library Book takes a forgotten point in library history and brings it into the light. Book lovers and libraries lovers will enjoy this poignant tale of how a library defied the odds and continue on to this day. However, the lack of accurate information of the librarian field and pastoral representation of libraries really turned me off from this book. This is not a book for librarians but a book for people who don’t want to hear the truth about libraries.

Overall rating: 2 out 5 stars


Get It At: Amazon |Barnes & Noble|Book Depository| Your local library

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