Dear THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orleans: major Fahrenheit 451 vibes, an arson mystery, and librarian nostalgia

Dear The Library Book by Susan Orleans:

One of my favorite genres of books–if you can call it a genre–is books about books. This category also encompasses books about libraries, so you can imagine my delight when I stumbled across you in audiobook form on the Libby app. Somehow I had never heard about the fire that destroyed so much of the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) on April 29, 1986, burning more than 400,000 books and damaging 700,000 more. Yet you are so much more than merely a book about a fire in a library that occurred decades ago. What begins as a book about a library transforms into a who-done-it narrative of arson–ultimately one that is left pretty ambiguous.

You were so fun and suspenseful and thought-provoking to read, largely because you contain so many stories and topics all rolled into one, starting from the scene of the LAPL fire. I can still vividly imagine the fire scene in my mind. There were some major Fahrenheit 451 vibes there, in a way that was both scary and fascinating. As someone who doesn’t know much about the science behind fires, it was really interesting to read about how they were able to determine how the fire spread and possibly started simply from analyzing the destruction in the aftermath. And it was so, so sad to think of all those books going up in flames–all those stories left unread.

“Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”

The Library Book by Susan Orlean.

At your core you are a book about a library, which I found fascinating as someone who worked as a library page in my tiny local public library when I was in high school. Not only was learning about an enormous, populous library like LAPL interesting in terms of logistics, but it was also interesting from a societal standpoint. You discuss how so many people’s childhoods were tied up in memories of frequent visits to this library as well as the large homeless population that visited the LAPL on a regular basis. In so many ways, you speak to the incredibly important role that libraries play in society as social hubs of humanity.

I tried taking a photo of the audiobook on my phone…

You also dive into some local history and politics surrounding the Los Angeles Public Library. I was so intrigued by your detailed recounting of the employment history of hiring librarians and library directors, including how a job that now seems dominated by women was at first only available to men. I was also horrified to hear that many libraries in America were only open to men at first. You were an important reminder of how far we’ve come in this area.

And then there was the mystery of the arsonist. Did someone set the library on fire? If so, who? Somehow I had never heard of this library fire or the investigation into the potential identity of the arsonist before. As someone currently attending law school, I was captivated by the legal discussions surrounding the investigations and the ensuing trial that took place as people tried to solve this mystery. You were written in such a suspenseful, gripping way that when I got to the part of you that was primarily about the arson mystery I couldn’t stop listening–I just had to know how you would end! It’s not everyday that a nonfiction book is that enthralling.

“The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of people who come find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”

The Library Book by Susan Orlean.

You’d think that a book covering so many topics would run the risk of being unorganized or confusing or muddled, but Orlean wove your narrative together seamlessly. Her writing shift to perfectly suit the topic at hand, be that a suspenseful, gripping arson mystery or an emotional tale of bookish childhood nostalgia. Most importantly, though, your narrative reminded me just how much life and history and stories and meaning can be packed into each and every moment, no matter where you happen to find yourself.

You are an excellent book about books, The Library Book. I would highly recommend you to someone trying to break into the nonfiction genre (or the books about books genre!) because you are just so interesting, captivating, and well-written. (I would also highly recommend the audiobook version!)

Keep your story burning brightly, The Library Book. (But not in a library!)




3 responses to “Dear THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orleans: major Fahrenheit 451 vibes, an arson mystery, and librarian nostalgia”

  1. I thought this was just about the arson at first and got really thrown off by all the library history, but once I got used to it I ended up enjoying this!


  2. I remember the fire itself, as I have lived in LA most of my life. Fortunately the library’s classic main building (one of the finest in our city) was restored, and a handsome addition built to house yet more books. There are now 6 million books in the collection (29 million total items, including music, cinema, historical photos, maps, and art), 71 branch libraries, and hundreds of exhibits, presentations, and social programs hosted by the system–though it’s all on hold till at least the middle of May right now. I worked in the Echo Park branch managing an adult literacy program for three years–best job I’ve ever had.


  3. This is the library system I work for. I found this book so fascinating as it moved between the fire and the ways libraries have evolved and adapted. Great review!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: