Friday, January 11, 2019

book thoughts: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The backstory: The Library Book is the January 2019 pick for the Hello Sunshine book club. I started listening to it December 27th, but it was nice to be well into it when Reese announced the January pick.

My thoughts: I saw Susan Orlean speak at the American Library Association conference in New Orleans last June. I had heard she had a book coming out in the fall called The Library Book, but I didn't know anything else about it. After moving to Los Angeles, her son had an assignment to interview a city employee, and he chose a librarian. While visiting Central Library in Los Angeles, a librarian mentioned to Susan that you can still smell smoke in some of the books. She was shocked to learn there had been a major fire at the library in 1986 and she didn't know about it. The Library Book is an investigation of the fire, which was intentionally set and still unsolved, but it's also an exploration of the long history of the Los Angeles Public Library and the current state of public libraries.

It was interesting to read this as a librarian. I confessed to a librarian friend who has worked in public libraries but now works in an academic library that listening to The Library Book made me want to be a public librarian. She laughed, which is fair, but it did make part of me wish I were a public librarian. Orlean doesn't shy away from the negative aspects of contemporary urban public librarianship, but she also celebrates the awesomeness of it. Particularly Central Library, which has incredibly specialized collections and librarians. (In real life, I have no plans to ever trade in my academic librarian job for a public librarian job.) I've never worked in a public library, and while I know a lot about libraries, from graduate school, attending conferences aimed at all types of librarians, and being a dedicated user of many public libraries in my lifetime, I learned a lot about libraries in this book. More than once, I asked myself, "shouldn't I have learned that in library school? Did I learn it and forget it?" Library history is fascinating, but Los Angeles library history is particularly fascinating (and the more general Los Angeles history featured in this book made me want to learn even more about the city.)

While in some ways the fire is the focus of this book, it really serves more as an entrance point. Orlean returns to the fire and investigation throughout the book, but there will be chapters focused on Los Angeles library history and the current state of public libraries between them. In that sense, it isn't as focused on the crime as I might have thought.

Audiobook thoughts: I'm glad I chose to listen to The Library Book, as Orlean narrates. While this isn't a memoir, Orlean does talk about her approach to this story, her perspective, and experience, and it was nice to listen to it all in her voice. The only part of the audiobook I didn't love were the titles, authors, years of publication and call numbers she reads at the beginning of each chapter. It's a gimmick I imagine worked well in print, but often I found myself not getting the connection, as it's hard to jump back at the end of the chapter to see how those titles fit in.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 337 pages (12 hours 9 minutes)
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Source: owned

Want to read for yourself? Buy The Library Book from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Challenges: Booked (reminds you of your happy place), Read Harder (nonviolent true crime), Hello Sunshine, Pop Sugar (recommended by a celebrity you admire--Reese Witherspoon obviously!), and Litsy A to Z.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. I spent many a day in the children's section of the Central Library when I was kid so when it burned down I was devastated. It's restored to look like the original architecture but yes, there is a smokey quality to some of the materials there. I wish that library was easier for me to get to on a regular basis but the downtown traffic makes it difficult to visit this out of the way gem.

    1. So cool! I want to visit it the next time I'm in L.A. (and I have no idea when that will be!)


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