The Library Book

…if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are part of a larger story that has shape and purpose – a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future. (p. 93)

I remember the incredible freedom my mother gave me as a child, to walk to the YMCA for my swimming lessons, to cycle across town to my Math tutor, and to visit the library on Saturday for a brand new stack of books.

Our town’s library was small and quiet. There was a section for children’s books, and behind the check out desk, there were stairs leading up to shelves of books which were barricaded by bronze chains. Surely something wonderful must be kept so hidden; my friends and I often speculated that was where the ‘dirty books’ were. For adults only.

It is a wonder to me that I liked the library at all. The librarians were impolite to children, impatient with any possibility of us having soiled hands or rearranging their carefully placed books. Fines seemed enormous. Once, I lost my copy of Toby Tyler and The Circus which had inadvertently fallen between my bed and the wall. The fine I incurred was so enormous, and the frustration my mother expressed so great, that I wondered if going to the library was worth it at all.

But, surely it was. The library was a place where books could be had for free, as many as I could carry, for almost as long as I wished. It smelled wonderful, of dusty paper and glue, and I was very proud of my pink cardboard library card and the ability to sign my name which indicated I accepted responsibility for the books I checked out.

Susan Orlean’s book, The Library Book, captures the essence of the library and why it is that such a place can be so beloved across America. Her novel centers around the Central Library of Los Angeles, California, which burned on April 29, 1986 and became the largest library fire In American history. It was thought that a young man named Harry Peak was the person who had set the fire, and while The Library Book examines his implication, it goes far beyond his culpability.

We are introduced to a myriad of librarians and information about libraries that I never knew about. For example:

  • World War II destroyed more books and libraries than any event in human history. (p. 98)
  • Investigators now believe that the majority of library fires are deliberately set. (p. 106)
  • The estimated cost of replacing the 400,000 lost books (in the fire) was over $14 million.

But, more interesting to me than learning about fires and library costs and workers, is the place that libraries hold in our society. Consider this lovely quote:

The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace. (p. 67)

Indeed, Orlean has shown how the Central Library in Los Angeles does far more than check out books or answer questions. It has become a safe place for homeless, for drug addicts, for lonely, outcast people.

Every problem society has, the library has, too, because the boundary between society and the library is porous; nothing good is kept out of the library, and nothing bad. Often, at the library, society’s problems are magnified…But a library can’t be the institution we hope for it to be unless it is open to everyone. (p. 244-5)

I will never look at a public library in quite the same way after reading this book.

30 thoughts on “The Library Book”

  1. The library had a special place in my childhood too and I’ve continued to be a member in every place I’ve lived. Sadly many politicians in the UK don’t see the importance of this institution and are intent on closing them down because they view them as costly….

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    1. Politicians closing down libraries is too close to Ray Bradbury’s fictional Fahrenheit 451…which seems less and less fictional all the time. He knew the value of libraries, and the fear of losing books, far before most of the general population even thought of it. I hope this doesn’t happen in the UK; I don’t see it happening where I live, thankfully.

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    1. It has been popular for quite some time. This is the first time I’ve heard of it, in reading it for my book club, as I don’t normally pick up nonfiction. Much to my shame. The only nonfiction I make a habit of reading (daily) is the Bible. Other than that, much valuable information probably passes me by.

      I think you will like The Library Book as much as I did, especially as we are bibliophiles.

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      1. I imagine I will really like it! BTW, do you mind if I print out the little icon for your Japanese Challenge to put in my reading journal for where I am keeping a record of reading projects?

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  2. I’m looking forward to reading this one, and already have recommended it to a couple of friends. I’d never heard of the LA library fire; how can that be? I’ve always loved libraries, especially ones with dim, dusty stacks. Your review was so good, it made me want to go directly to our library, but I’m going to have to wait a few hours until it opens.

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    1. I’m so glad you liked this review and have mentioned the book to a couple of your friends! Even better that you are going to the library to get it straight away. 😉 I had never heard of the LA fire either, but I attribute that to the fact that I was teaching in Germany then, and Chernobyl had just happened within days of the fire (before, or after, I can’t remember). My mother called and said, “You come home right now!” Which still makes me smile.

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  3. I’ve spent a lot of time in libraries in my teenage years too. (I had two library cards, one from my hometown library and one from the town where my highschool was)

    In France, most of them are now “médiathèques” and not “bibliothèques” because you can borrow books, music, films. They have computers and videogames. I’m a pragmatic, if having videogames make children and teenager come, there’s a chance that some who wouldn’t have pushed the door of a library get near books. Then it’s up to the librarians to push them to read!

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    1. I never knew about the term “mediatheques’ but it makes sense because when I was teaching in the late 1980’s, the term library was changed t “library media center”. It branched out far beyond books, as you have said, and in a sense I felt it was almost tragic. Sure, the information was readily available. But, gone went the deep seated interest in books (on the children’s part) and story hour (on the librarians’ part). There simply wasn’t enough time to incorporate all the new with the old. On the other hand, I do see how we have to adjust to the times, and how non readers may be pulled into reading if they come into a library for a video game. (But, I doubt it.)

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  4. I read this book in the fall for a book group discussion and liked most of it. The discussion was good though some thought it was a bit dry and talked too much about library history, theory, etc. I think they wanted more of the ‘crime’ side of things. For me, it was fascinating, but I’m a library person and have seen things from the other side of the circulation desk. I know how important libraries are and what gaps they fill in many people’s lives. As to the Los Angels fire and why many did not know about it (and I was one of them), it happened the day before (think that’s right) the Chernobyl disaster and that story took others off the front page. At our discussion, one of the current library staff members came and told us about programs in local libraries (including our own Austin Public Library) that many might not be aware of and other lesser-known aspects of library life.

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    1. I read this for our book group, too, Kay! Our discussion takes place on Wednesday, and I am sure it will be a good one as we have so much love for books (and I have had so much frustration with our library). One of the members of our book club was once on the library board of our town, so I will have to be careful in making a disparaging remark as I have done, especially when looking for a translated book in the stacks which is hardly ever to be found!

      The Chernobyl disaster took precedence for me, too, as I was teaching in Germany at the time, and it seemed that the poison would flow straight across the sky to us. It didn’t, and I am grateful for that.

      I also wanted to say how nice it is that libraries offer so many programs. I’m not sure what is available at your local branch(es), but our catalog is stuffed with classes from technology to helping people with their taxes and much, much more in between. My friend and I even chanced upon a caroling group singing in the community room this December.☺️

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  5. I enjoyed your childhood library memoir. Libraries are wonderful institutions. When I visited America I visited some of the art galleries in the major cities, but I will always regret missing out on the New York Public Library when I spent a week in NYC. Why I didn’t get my act together and visit it, I can’t explain. Silly me.

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    1. When one visits, there are so many places one would like to see that there simply isn’t time to do. It really never occurred to me to see libraries in famous cities or places that I have been. Can you believe I missed visiting the Sorbonne while in Paris? Let’s not regret it too much, and try to make a point of seeing them in the future. In fact, I think I’d rather see a library than a famous museum at this point in my life.

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    1. It was my lifeline, too. There has never been a lot of spare money for books for me, either, especially when I was in my early married days. Even now, I don’t buy many. I get them from the Used shelf at the library for $1.00, or I buy them for my kindle at a fraction of the paper cost, or (if I’m fortunate) publishers will send them to me for review. That is what I’ve had to do when reading for the Man Booker International Prize because not even our bookstores had those books, let alone the library! The UK publishes much more translated literature, I think, at least from what I can tell over here.

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  6. “Most rare book library theft is by staff.” William Moffatt / Former director, Huntington Library. Light switches in book cases short out and old books can catch fire. tom h. e. h. rare books 20 years now retired.x x x

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    1. I never knew that about the staff stealing most of the rare books! And I thought librarians were almost like clergy: holding what they worked with as sacrosanct. How easily I see that we are human.

      I never thought about the light switches causing fire to old books, either. Susan Orleans mentions that most library fires are set deliberately, but I can surely see how accidental ones can begin, too. Think of people being allowed to smoke in a library once upon a time!

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    1. What a good idea! I give books I no longer need to the library to put on their Used Book shelf, where the books are sold for $1.00, but I never thought about donating the books so they can become a part of the library itself. I read several worthy pieces, often sent by publishers, which perhaps the library would appreciate.

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      1. That was me! Daniel had a fine of over $500.00 in unreturned CDs that I’m still mad I made him pay. We should have settled for half; I could have bought them on Amazon and barcoded them for free. 😉

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    1. I am glad you found the joy there as a child; surely, your librarians were kinder. I am glad that I have come to appreciate it as an adult since no one in my elementary school days (at school or the public library) was a paragon of warmth to children.

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  7. I remember my first trips to the library as a child with my mother, too, first within walking distance not too far away, and then later to the more intimidating NY Public Library, downtown. This book sounds interesting and informative, Bellezza. We have a wonderful library here which is an important resource for the community.

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  8. I just bought a used copy of this book over New Year’s. This book is based on the LA library I visited as a child. My father, he really kind of neglected me but what a way to neglect me. He’d leave me in the children’s section of this library all day long. It’s a huge place with large stacks, echo-y hallways, banker’s lamps and large chairs. He’s leave me there all day long and then pick me and my towering stack up to go home. That library burned down and when it did I was devastated. I am so glad it’s restored and very similar to the original. I still visit sometimes although I no longer live downtown.

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  9. I thought this was a wonderful book! I read it with my book group last year and so many of us enjoyed it. My review is full of favorite passages and I wish I had a copy of the book rather than the ebook I borrowed from my mother. About library fines — we discovered that our local library does not charge fines, but there is a “Guilt” jar on the desk for those of us who wish (or feel an obligation) to make some sort of payment for keeping the book long past its due date. Rod and I still can’t get over this! 🙂

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  10. This sounds like a great book. I smiled at your story from your childhood, recalling how proudly my daughter brought home her first library card. She’s always loved books, which makes me a proud dad 🙂

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