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.