BY: Annette Davis
Susan Orlean, in her latest work, The Library Book, takes an in-depth look at the Los Angeles Central Library’s fascinating history. Orlean creates an almost romantic image. She entices her readers to see all libraries as something more than book repositories but as living, vital members of communities, catering to the needs of all who seek knowledge and a place of refuge.
Orlean weaves her own tour of the Central library with the history of the library’s horrendous fire in 1986 and the Central library’s development through the various stewardships of it. Shifting time sequence in the narrative, Orlean describes her childhood library visits with her mother and her move to LA with her own family, both of which she says are the impetus for her book.
Central to the story is Orlean’s recounting of the hunt for the perpetrator of the nation’s largest library fire. Orlean retraces the investigation of Harry Peak, the accused arsonist, whose fabricated alibis and quirky personality took LA investigators on a wild goose chase in their effort to seek justice.
Orlean’s exhaustive research demonstrates her devotion to painting a complete picture of the beauty of the Central library’s functions and architecture.
Orlean writes in evocative language about the library’s many departments, bringing the place to life through interviews with the various departments’ librarians, who illuminate the purpose of each space’s function within the library.
Her message is that libraries are reflections of the community at large; without them, we lose a part of our humanity. Orlean’s tour of the Central library serves to reaffirm her love of these places where knowledge is shared and where people of all walks of life come together in a familial way. Libraries unify in a world where social issues often don’t, according to Orlean.
Orlean’s book is a delightful read. Her voice is authoritative yet laced with moments of humor and pathos. Her meticulously detailed account of the vibrant world of the library makes one want to become a librarian—or at very least to appreciate a library book as a treasure and a representation of all that is good in our culture.
Annette Davis breathes words like air. A writer, teacher, and MFA candidate, she is also a proud mother to two amazing adults and two crazy cats.