REVIEW!!The Library Book by Susan Orlean

43217645After moving to Los Angeles, Susan Orlean become fascinated by a mysterious local crime that has gone unsolved since it was carried out on the morning of 29 April 1986: who set fire to the Los Angeles Public Library, ultimately destroying more than 400,000 books, and perhaps even more perplexing, why?

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading with the fascinating history of libraries, Susan Orlean investigates the legendary fire to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives. She also reflects on her own childhood experiences in libraries; studies arson and the long history of library fires; attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; and re-examines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the library over thirty years ago. Along the way, she reveals how these buildings provide much more than just books – and that they are needed now more than ever.

As a keen reader of books about books who also has an interest in non-violent and historical true crime, I was immediately interested in Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. It’s one of those multifaceted books that wears many hats – examining the devastating fire that decimated Los Angeles Central Library in 1986 and the personal history of the man accused of starting it, whilst at the same time providing an eclectic history of the Los Angeles library system and an examination of the role of the public library within our increasingly digital world.

Orlean’s narrative is extremely dense and the book covers a lot of ground in it’s 300 or so pages. But the clear and engaging prose, which blends personal reflection with immersive journalism and factual history, drew me into the narrative and gave the book a compulsion.

Orlean really captures the intensity of feeling that surrounds libraries and books. Her description of the library fire is devastating for a book lover to read – she really makes it easy to empathise with the librarians, who cried on the street as they watched over 400,000 items from their extensive collection go up in flames. In a fascinating chapter, Orlean burns a book herself; an act that she finds both terrifying and subversive. It’s a feeling that I completely understood and I found myself mourning the lost knowledge that was turned to ash on the morning of 29 April 1986.

Orlean’s sensitive treatment of Harry Peak, the charismatic young actor suspected of setting the library fire, manages to convey both the fiercely-held belief that investigators had in Harry’s guilt whilst acknowledging the fallibility of fire investigation techniques and the circumstantial nature of the evidence available at the time.

That said, Harry’s narrative was, for me, the weakest part of the book – although that is the fault of history rather than of Orlean. Harry, a man who constantly re-wrote his own narrative, flits elusively through the pages and you definitely get the sense that Orlean, like many of the other people around him, struggles to pin him down. The Library Book is impeccably researched but, as Orlean admits, the truth about the library fire – and whether Harry had any involvement in it – will probably never be known. This does give the ending a slightly subdued quality – the pace drops off noticeably in the last third as it becomes apparent that this isn’t a mystery that will have a resolution. To Orlean’s credit, she instead turns the book into a love letter to libraries and a reflection on their importance in the world today.

The Library Book may disappoint readers looking for a true crime narrative. There are definitely similarities in pacing and style with David Grann’s excellent Killers of the Flower Moon and Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, but this is a very different kind of book in tone. The Library Book isn’t about finding the answer to a mystery – it’s an ode to books, a love-letter to reading and a homage to libraries and their place in the world. It’s a book that’s perfect for anyone who has whiled away hours browsing the stacks or has childhood memories of magical trips to neighbourhood branches. In short, it’s for anyone who appreciates the power of libraries to fascinate, to educate, to entertain and to unite – a rich, warm and heartening book that kept me spellbound throughout.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean is published by Atlantic Books and is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing me with a copy in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

Random Bookish Things

Love Your Library #LibrariesWeek

This week, 9 – 14 October, sees the return of Libraries Week, a nationwide celebration of libraries and their place in our community.

As both a reader and a book blogger, I’m a huge fan of my local library. As someone with a finite supply of disposable income, they’re a fantastic way of feeding my page habit without earning the disapproval of my bank manager, plus they offer a way of trialing books and authors that I’m interested in but not sure I’ll enjoy without investing my hard-earned funds.

And it seems I’m not alone in my admiration. According to statistics collected for Libraries Week, in 2016 the great British public made 250 million visits to public libraries across Great Britain. That’s more people in and out of the door of libraries nationwide than visited the cinema, the theatre, live music gigs and visited the UKs top ten tourist attractions COMBINED.

Surprisingly, young people are the group most likely to use public libraries with 15 – 25 year olds more likely to use their local library than over 55s. And 3 out of 4 people across the UK say that public libraries are essential or very important to their communities.

Despite this, libraries continue to be under threat from cuts in public spending, making national initiatives like Libraries Week – and support from all of us readers – increasingly important for their continued existence.

I’m aware that services vary across the country but I have to say that my local library service is fantastic. They’re continually investing in stock to ensure that new titles are available for loan soon after release, have an extensive audiobook and ebook selection and offer both print and digital issues of a range of magazines. All this in addition to offering a range of clubs and activities, computer access and a host of community services and information. For FREE.

But what, I hear you cry, if my local library doesn’t have a copy of the book I want? Well, for the princely sum of fifty pennies (25p for concessions and free for children), I can order a book in to my local branch from anywhere in the county. Out of county requests are more expensive but if that rare book that I just have to read can only be obtained from a library in Cornwall, then it’ll cost me £7.00 (or £3.50 for concessions and, yet again, free for the kiddos). All of which is pretty darn good I think.

It’s not a service immune from the cuts by any means. Our mobile library service has been drastically reduced and a number of smaller branch libraries are now run by the local community. Regular book sales to top up library funds mean that an author’s latest title will be readily available but try to find their debut and you might be struggling (which is especially frustrating when you want to read a crime series from the beginning). But, overall, it’s a fabulous service and one I know that I’m lucky to have access to.

The photo at the top of this post is my current library haul. As you can see, there’s everything in there from new releases to award winners. Some of the books I’ve borrowed because I want to read them ASAP but can’t really afford to invest in a hardback (Reservoir 13, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Stay With Me), some of them because I think they sound interesting but I’m not sure they’ll be my cup of tea (The Best Kind of People, Home Fire), some because I think I’ll only read them the once (The Marriage Pact) and some because they’re non-fiction that I want to dip into for specific research (A History of Ancient Britain, Inconvenient People).

If I’d had to buy all of these books, I wouldn’t have picked up half of these titles – and would probably have waited for the paperback edition on another quarter of them. Which makes the library a huge part of the way in which I discover and enjoy new authors and new titles.

All of which boils down to me saying that I love my local library. It’s a fantastic service and a really important way for many people to access books, media and computers. So please, if you don’t already, go and show your local library some love. I’d love to hear from readers about if you do use your library (and, if not, why not), whether your library reading differs from the books you would purchase and what your current library read is. So please, drop me a comment down below or over on Twitter and, until the next time…

Happy Reading! x