• Terrie

A nonfiction ode to libraries, a bit of history and a mystery is our Buddy Read - The Library Book

An ode to libraries and a history of librarians, all tied together around the terrible fire at the LA Public Library where 400,000 books were burned.


The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Genre: Nonfiction

Published 2018, 336 pages


Terrie's Thoughts

"In the library, time is dammed up—not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever."

This is the first in my goal of reading more non-fiction in 2019. And it was a good place to start. Ostensibly about the huge library fire in LA in 1986 in which over 400,000 books burned, it's really an in-depth look at libraries past and present, how they've changed over the years, how librarians have evolved and grown to serve the communities they're in; it's about love of books and learning and the people who love and are served by libraries. The chapters about the fire are detailed and draw a grim picture of the damage fire does to rows and rows of paper (books). That section was excellent.

There's even a fair amount of time devoted to the quandary of homeless people in the library.

"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. The commitment to inclusion is so powerful that many decisions about the library hinge on whether or not a particular choice would cause a subset of the public to feel uninvited."

It's one of those books that I kept reading passages aloud to my husband as I came across some incredible piece of new (to me) information. There were also pages here and there where I skimmed along - a part of the history that wasn't of interest to me. Occasionally a bit dry, it was well written overall as the narrative kind of wanders around various stories about libraries and librarians, but always returns to the main narrative of who/why/how the LA library burned (never resolved).

“Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”

As a love story to libraries and librarians, I would definitely recommend this to anyone who loves their library (or the idea of a library), or who wants to learn more about the history of the development of libraries. Another good read for a book group.

top photo by Terrie Purkey, library photo by Element5 Digital, pexels.com



Donna's Thoughts


This author definitely gets 5 stars for her research! I loved hearing about the firefighters’ efforts to put out the fire – how many trucks and men and hours were required. And reading about the hundreds of volunteers who helped remove the salvageable books for safe-keeping brought a lump to my throat at the sheer manpower needed. Then there were the companies and restaurants that offered their freezers to store the books until it could be arranged for them to be dried out. Later, the actual drying out process took months. I found all of that fascinating


The author also shares interesting details about many of the employees, librarians, and heads of the L.A. library. She includes some history about books being burned and destroyed over the years all over the world and the numbers are staggering. Many of these losses were during war time.

I was surprised at just how varied the items are that are kept at the larger public libraries – it’s not just books, but maps, photos, autographs, diaries, magazines, research materials, the list goes on. Also making interesting reading were stories about bookmobiles worldwide – books strapped to the side of a donkey or stacked in a wagon and traveling through small, poor towns in various countries.


The book does jump around a bit from the fire investigation, her relationship with her mom, the design of the library and the rebuilding of the library, people connected to the story, and a history of books and libraries in general. Some of it I skimmed a bit; Orlean is verbose in her descriptions.

Librarians should read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training, but because they’d rather do it (more) than anything else in the world.

#nonfiction #bookaboutbooks #goodforbookclub #reesebookclub #history #LA #california #buddyread #4halfstars (click hashtag for similar books)



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© Bookshelf Journeys, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terrie Purkey and Bookshelf Journeys with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.   2019

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