Book Review:  The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Libraries have been some of my favorite places on Earth ever since I was a child. When our family lived on lower Capital Hill in Seattle, my mother would drive me and my siblings to the Henry Branch Library on top of Capital Hill so we could explore the shelves and check out books. I would usually come home with a significant heap of literary treasures. Later, in my teen years, after I had come to the realization that I was a writer, I discovered the science fiction shelves at the Henry Branch and in particular the Nebula Awards volumes.

While raising our young family in Greece, it was sometimes difficult to find enough English language books to fuel the fires of my reading addiction, as I recount in my essay called “Treasure Hunt: Searching for Books in Thessaloniki,” although we had access to some of the best libraries in the city.

Nowadays, I mainly go to the Northeast Branch of the Seattle Public Library. I am more dependent on it than ever because my tight budget does not permit me to buy many books. It still thrills me to explore the shelves. Last year I received a devastating shock when the entire Seattle Public Library system shut down due to the COVID pandemic. I had to compensate by purchasing a few books but mainly rereading books I had on hand.

In The Library Book, author Susan Orleans uses her lifelong love of libraries to tell a fascinating tale based on the devastating fire that destroyed much of the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986. She uses that incident to weave multiple story threads about the fire itself, the investigation of the fire, the man who was suspected of starting it, how the building was repaired and the books salvaged, the history of the Los Angeles Library system, profiles of some of its main librarians, the history of book burning, the writing of Fahrenheit 451, the treatment of the homeless and other questionable library patrons, and other equally intriguing topics.

How could a book about libraries be such a page-turner? And yet it is. One reason is its focus on the library fire and the investigation of how it started and whether the crime of arson was involved. However, another reason is Orlean’s obvious love of libraries, which was instilled in her by her mother, who brought her to libraries and encouraged her to freely explore all the treasures within. That love comes through loud and clear. It is a love that I share and many other people do as well. Libraries are special civic institutions that welcome all visitors, poor or rich, simple or highly educated. They are available to everyone for education, enlightenment, research, entertainment – and yes, sometimes just because people need a quiet place to use the bathroom and escape from the turmoil outside.

This book was a wonderful discovery for me. Although it was published fairly recently, I had never heard of it until I found it by chance while – you guessed it – perusing the shelves at my local library. It’s a lively and fun read, and it effectively conveys the inestimable value of public libraries. Highly recommended.

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