The Library Book: Susan Orlean


Susan Orlean’s The Library Book tells the fascinating history of the Los Angeles Public Library, from its small beginnings, to the fire that ravaged it in 1986, and through present day.

Orlean fell in love with public libraries as a child during visits with her mother. She marveled at the possibilities within the library’s walls and the freedom it allotted her to explore and learn. Years later, when she moved to Los Angeles with her family, she walked through the doors of the L.A. Public Library with her son and all the magical feelings came rushing back. At once, she knew she must know more about this dazzling library.

The Library Book encompasses over a century of the L.A. Public Library’s history, starting at its humble beginnings as a reading room in a rented building in 1873 and the cast of characters that have grown and directed it through the years.

The story ultimately revolves around the devastating fire that burned for seven hours in 1986 and destroyed over 500,000 library artifacts, its suspected arsonist, and its rebirth. As she investigates the tragedy, Orlean gets to know the L.A Library’s current employees and initiatives, and finds life in a seemingly lifeless institution. The Library Book is, at its core, a story of history, devastation, and hope.

Content Warnings

Please take caution while reading The Library Book if any of the following topics may trigger you:

  • Sexism
  • Death / dying

My Thoughts

I picked up The Library Book for one reason – because it was Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick for January 2019. A book about the history of libraries sounds… dry. To be honest, I don’t even go to libraries, so I didn’t think that I would have a personal connection to this book. Oh boy, was I wrong.

The Library Book is absolutely magical. Orlean has achieved quite a feat by making this book utterly captivating. This is in large part to her excellent writing; the story flows beautifully through history and present day, mixing amusing conversations she’s had with library staff in with the fascinating history of the library’s birth and explosive growth.

Orlean spends a good chunk of the book discussing each director in the L.A. Public Library’s history and their personal impacts on its growth, which is equal parts titillating and educational. All of this is used to say that library directors, even today, are utterly dedicated to the success of their public service and are constantly innovating and reimagining.

The fire that destroyed the L.A. Public Library and left it out of commission for years is a fascinating mystery. The fire is declared as arson, but the journey to convicting someone of the crime is difficult and seriously bizarre. Orlean takes on the role of investigative journalist to learn about the main suspect, Harry Peak, and the legal battle that ensues – an intriguing mix of true crime and history.

The Library Book is a love letter to libraries and all that they do for their communities. It has inspired me to take advantage of and support my local library, and has painted a wonderfully positive picture of the librarians that work tirelessly for their neighborhoods. I highly recommend The Library Book to everyone, but especially to history and true crime buffs and lovers of reading and the library.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my thoughts on The Library Book. I’d love to hear from you about the book in the comment or at my Instagram, @bookmarkedbya.

2 Replies to “The Library Book: Susan Orlean”

  1. The Library Book sounds super interesting! Libraries are so important, I’m glad there are books out there dedicated to documenting their history. I’ll have to add it to my tbr list, thank you for a fab review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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