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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: The Library Book

The Library Book - Susan Orlean

Prior to the arrival of this book, I was unfamiliar with the Los Angeles library fire of 1986. I'd never noticed journalist and author Susan Orlean before. When I read the description for The Library Book, however, I was intrigued. This sounded like a fabulous, riveting book. Here was the story of a great library on fire, and the investigation of how that fire started.

But that's only about thirty percent of the book. The other seventy percent is the story of individual librarians, the history of arson, personal reflections about the evolution of libraries, and whatever else the author wishes to discuss. The book is bogged down with so much behind-the-scene details of your average library that I was bored. Now I should mention that I have worked at a library for over eleven years. I love being a librarian. It's easily the best job I've ever had that I've been paid for doing. This connection was part of my initial interest in this book. And I imagine that some of The Library Book's biggest supporters are librarians. Finally, here is a book that champions what we, as librarians, do daily.

Despite Susan Orlean's expertise in writing, however, I don't think she does the subject justice. Ultimately, her story is about Libraries in general, but often she uses the Los Angeles Public Library staff as her example. Without a doubt, LAPL does many great things. They've been behind some wonderful initiatives. But Orlean's portrayal of librarians perpetuates so many of the stereotypes that I caught myself rolling my eyes frequently. Imagine, shushing librarians chastising a patron for eating a bag of chips!!! The horror.

Even while propagating the image of these old-fashioned librarians, Orlean is trying to convince the reader how cool libraries are because the librarians have tattoos, and because they're filling a hole in social services and have embraced modern technology, and because librarians have tattoos (seriously, I don't know how many times she mentions this). She makes some good points throughout, but I couldn't help but wonder, who cares? Is this why readers picked up this book? So they could get a behind-the-scenes look at a library's shipping and receiving department? So they could hear about what one library's user policies are from its security staff? So they could read an entire chapter on Overdrive? Maybe library users are hungry for this info, but as someone living it day-to-day, I found it tedious.

What I'd personally wanted from this book was a specific story: the story of the Los Angeles Public Library fire. I'd wanted the harrowing account of the fire itself, as well as the aftermath. I'd wanted to hear about the crime and criminal who set the fire. And that story is here, but in limited detail. In fact, even that story is incomplete, because while the beginning of the book leads the reader to believe there are definitive answers to the LAPL fire, Orlean eventually convinces the reader that it's largely speculation.

I do want to add here that some of the tangential information is interesting. I don't want a reader of this review to think that everything about that other 70 percent of the book is a drag, because it isn't. There are stories about the city's first female City Librarian, Mary Foy, the expansion of the library system under the direction of Mary L. Jones, and her subsequent ousting that put the eccentric and controversial Charles Lummis in charge. Parts of these histories, as well as others, are interesting and sometimes relevant to the story. The vast majority of this book, however, is trivia for the sake of trivia. It's rambling and probably not all that interesting to the ordinary reader. (Boy, that 4.19 average rating seems to disagree with me, however.)

No doubt Orlean is a wonderful writer and skilled researcher, but the story of “the Los Angeles Public Library fire” just isn't here. I wonder if she embarked on this journey unaware of where it might lead, and had to settle for a thinly veiled textbook about libraries in general. Maybe this was her story all along. If you haven't been to a library in ages, you may read this book and say to yourself, “Wow, libraries are cool.” Then again, as one Goodreads reviewer summed up in her one-star review, "If you didn't think libraries were boring before reading this book- you will now."