Library Book (Orlean)

The Library Book 
Susan Orlean, 2018
Simon & Schuster
336 pp.
ISBN-13:
9781476740188


Summary
On the morning of April 28, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library.

As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, "Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’"

The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more.

Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.

In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives—delving 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.

Furthermore, Orlean brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting, she studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself, and she reflects on her own experiences in libraries. Lastly, Orlean 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—

  • 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;
  • Dr. C. J. K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as "The Human Encyclopedia" who roamed the library dispensing information;
  • Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world;
  • the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.

Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country.

The book is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, libraries are more necessary than ever. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—October 31, 1955
Where—Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Education—B.A., University of Michigan
Currently—lives in upstate New York


Susan Orlean is an American journalist. She has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, and has contributed articles to Vogue, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Outside.

Orlean was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from the University of Michigan. She was then a staff writer at the Portland, Oregon, weekly Willamette Week, and soon began publishing stories in Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vogue, Outside, and Spy.

In 1982 she moved to Boston and became a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix and later a regular contributor to the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. Her first book, Saturday Night, was published in 1990, shortly after she moved to New York and began writing for The New Yorker magazine. She became a New Yorker staff writer in 1992. Orlean was also a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2003.

Orlean is the author of several books, including The Orchid Thief, a profile of Florida orchid grower, breeder, and collector John Laroche. The book formed the basis of Charlie Kaufman's script for the Spike Jonze film Adaptation. Orlean (portrayed by Meryl Streep in an Oscar-nominated role) was, in effect, made into a fictional character; the movie portrayed her as becoming Laroche's lover and partner in a drug production operation, in which orchids were processed into a fictional psychoactive substance.

She also wrote the Women's Outside article, "Life's Swell" (published 1998). The article, a feature on a group of young surfer girls in Maui, was the basis of the film Blue Crush.

In 1999, she co-wrote The Skinny: What Every Skinny Woman Knows About Dieting (And Won't Tell You!) under her married name, Susan Sistrom. Her previously published magazine stories have been compiled in two collections, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People and My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere.

She also served as editor for Best American Essays 2005 and Best American Travel Writing 2007. She contributed the Ohio chapter in "State By State" (2008).

In 2011 she published a biographical history about the dog actor Rin Tin Tin, followed by The Ghost FLower in 2016, and The Library Book in 2018.  (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 10/21/2018.)



Book Reviews
Exquisitely written, consistently entertaining.… A loving tribute not just to a place or an institution but to an idea.… What makes The Library Book so enjoyable is the sense of discovery that propels it, the buoyancy when Orlean is surprised or moved by what she finds.… Her depiction of the Central Library fire on April 29, 1986, is so rich with specifics that it’s like a blast of heat erupting from the page.… The Library Book is about the fire and the mystery of how it started—but in some ways that’s the least of it. It’s also a history of libraries, and of a particular library, as well as the personal story of Orlean and her mother, who was losing her memory to dementia while Orlean was retrieving her own memories by writing this book.
Jennifer Szalai - New York Times


Moving.… A constant pleasure to read.… Everybody who loves books should check out The Library Book.… Orlean, a longtime New Yorker writer, has been captivating us with human stories for decades, and her latest book is a wide-ranging, deeply personal, and terrifically engaging investigation of humanity’s bulwark against oblivion: the library.… As a narrator, Orlean moves like fire herself, with a pyrotechnic style that smolders for a time over some ancient bibliographic tragedy, leaps to the latest technique in book restoration, and then illuminates the story of a wildly eccentric librarian. Along the way, we learn how libraries have evolved, responded to depressions and wars, and generally thrived despite a constant struggle for funds. Over the holidays, every booklover in America is going to give or get this book.… You can’t help but finish The Library Book and feel grateful that these marvelous places belong to us all.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


Vivid.… Compelling.… Ms. Orlean interweaves a memoir of her life in books, a whodunit, a history of Los Angeles, and a meditation on the rise and fall and rise of civic life in the United States.… By turns taut and sinuous, intimate and epic, Ms. Orlean’s account evokes the rhythms of a life spent in libraries… bringing to life a place and an institution that represents the very best of America: capacious, chaotic, tolerant and even hopeful, with faith in mobility of every kind, even, or perhaps especially, in the face of adversity.
Jane Kamenski - Wall Street Journal


[Orlean's] mother’s dementia has made her acutely aware of how memories are doomed to be forgotten unless they’re recorded. This is a persuasive reminder of the importance of libraries, whose… historical treasures [are] built with the common good in mind.
Publishers Weekly


(Starred review) On April 29, 1986, the Los Angeles Public Library went up in a blaze that would be the worst library fire in America's history, destroying more than 400,000 books. Who set the fire, and why?… New Yorker staff writer Orlean decides to seek answers.
Library Journal


Mesmerizing.… A riveting mix of true crime, history, biography.… Probing, prismatic, witty, dramatic,… Orlean’s chronicle celebrates libraries as sanctuaries, community centers, and open universities run by people of commitment, compassion, creativity, and resilience.
Booklist


[E]ngaging.… [Orleans writes] about [librarians'] jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a "solace in the Depression," and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless.… Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. What has your relationship with libraries been throughout your life? Can you share some library memories from childhood to adulthood?

2. Were you at all familiar with the Los Angeles library fire? Or any library fire?

3. How would you describe the fire’s impact on the community? How about the community’s rebuilding efforts?

4. In chapter 5, Orlean writes that books "take on a kind of human vitality." What role do books play in your life and home, and do you anthropomorphize them? Have you ever wrestled with the idea of giving books away or otherwise disowning them?

5. What is your impression of John Szabo? How does his career inform and shape your understanding of what librarians do?

6. Libraries today are more than just a building filled with books. How has your local branch evolved? Are you able to chart these changes and gauge their success within the community?

7. The Library Book confronts the issue of street people patronizing the library. Is this an issue in your hometown? How do you feel about the L.A. library’s involvement, handling of the issue, and the notion of inclusion?

8. Andrew Carnegie is perhaps the most famous supporter and benefactor of libraries. Can you name a modern equivalent who is using his or her largesse to underwrite public works? Is it more important for the public sector to have big benefactors or overall community support?

9. What was your initial impression of Harry Peak? Did it change throughout the investigation?

10. What was your reaction to the Mary Jones and Charles Lummis saga? Can you cite any similar examples from history or the present?

11. Each of the head librarians discussed in The Library Book brought certain qualities to the position. What ideas and initiatives did you like? Did you disagree with any?

12. The Library Book chronicles the history of the Los Angeles Public Library from its origins to the present day. How were the library’s ups and downs reflective of the city’s ups and down? Are libraries a fair barometer to judge the mood of a city or town?

13. Chapter 30 discusses a range of initiatives undertaken by international libraries and librarians. Do you have a favorite example that you would like to see replicated at your local library?
(Questions issued by the publishers.)

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