The copy on the inside cover of Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book’’ promises a sexy “Backdraft’’-style whodunit of a catastrophic 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library, though frankly it’s mostly a 300-ish page homage to one of the most functional democratic institutions in America. That’s not a criticism: The public library deserves a love letter, and it would be hard-pressed to find a more authentic, warm, intelligent representative than the veteran New Yorker writer to craft it. That said, there’s a reason why the letter is often a more appropriate format than an entire volume when it comes to doling out effusive praise; a book without conflict, which you can only nod your head and agree with, would typically get pretty dull, pretty fast. But because this is Susan Orlean, with her uncanny ability to reveal the complex (and surprisingly compelling) machinations behind the seeming banality of the everyday, “The Library Book’’ is anything but dull.
The story of the library fire has all the elements of a titillating drama: a wannabe actor who’s also a compulsive liar, burning books, a community that mourns and ultimately rebuilds together. Suspected arsonist Harry Peak is a captivating character, both a down-and-out Hollywood archetype and a singular mystery. And the pages dedicated to the fire itself are mesmerizing; if every book is a life — if “books have souls,” as Orlean postulates — then the Los Angeles fire was nothing short of a genocide.
The beating heart of the book, though, is the library itself, or rather, the librarians themselves, for it’s the humanity — in all its decency and fallibility and downright weirdness — that gives life to what would otherwise be housing for millions of pounds of wood pulp. For example, when Charles Lummis, a blue-blooded poet/journalist/lady-killer whom some believe faked his own year-long spell of blindness, was installed to replace the staid, competent, bookish Mary Jones as head of the library in 1905 — very much against her will — the ensuing stand-off would today have the makings of a reality-show during ratings sweep. The current-day Los Angeles library staff and administration Orlean profiles are perhaps less flamboyant than Lummis, though Orlean delivers what seems to me an accurate cross-section of a large urban public library crew: the bookish and the brash; the cardigan-ed and the tattooed; the old and the young; the traditional and the nearly radical.
There are a few moments that Orlean broaches, but doesn’t fully mine, the subtext of the stories she presents. For example, the Lummis v. Jones battle is clearly representative of the patriarchal power structure that dominates all American public life, and Orlean is explicit about the gender dynamics at play in the early 20th century. But the book doesn’t necessarily bridge this point to its contemporary parallel, which is that the male-dominated, female-populated structure remains largely intact today. (Carla Hayden, who was appointed librarian of Congress in 2016, was the first women to ever rise to the field’s highest title in the nation, and the only one actually trained as a librarian.)
More intimate explorations are also fleeting. Orlean writes of her love of libraries being sown during her frequent childhood visits there with her mother, who later suffered from dementia and could recall neither the stories contained in the volumes she read nor those shared between mother and daughter in that sanctified space. This is a moment where the general meets the personal, an intimate space where “The Library” becomes her library. But in the end, I still can’t confidently point to any specific books critical to Orlean’s personal development, and the few scenes of Orlean and her mother together don’t fully transcend them sharing a space and a hobby.
Still, what I appreciate most about Orlean is how genuinely interested I believe she is in worlds outside of her own, and of the obvious respect she offers to those who populate and power them. Orlean’s mother frequently told her that “if she could have chosen any profession at all, she would have chosen to be a librarian, and the car would grow silent for a moment as we both considered what an amazing thing that would have been.” Orlean’s mother appears to have had both the intellect and the means to pursue such a career, so it’s unclear what prevented her from realizing this dream. What I think Orlean, through her mother, is acknowledging is that it takes a special kind of public servant, one who’s willing to accept the financial and sometimes emotional sacrifices this work often requires, to fill this role. For those who do, being a librarian becomes an identity as much as a career. While that may not have been the path for either woman, librarians also need people like Orlean to proselytize on their behalf: One serves by providing access to information, and one to remind us why it’s necessary.
THE LIBRARY BOOK
By Susan Orlean
Simon and Schuster, 317 pp., illustrated, $28
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Xhenet Aliu is a librarian and author of two books, most recently of the novel “Brass.’’