Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

If you're a book lover, you need to see the way that Susan Orlean's The Library Book is put together in the hardback edition. It is a completely gorgeous production designed to look like a leather tooled library book, from the spine to the endpapers to the deckle edges. And not only is the book physically gorgeous but a book about the 1986 LA Central Library fire was guaranteed to appeal to readers. How could it not? Unfortunately, the book didn't live up to the promise of the physical package for me.

Orlean is a masterful researcher. When she digs into a topic, like this devastating library fire, she uncovers absolutely everything there is to uncover about it. But that is where this book falls down. It's not focused on the largest library fire in American history where more than a million books were damaged or completely destroyed. It's not focused on the mystery of whether it was deliberately set or was the result of an electrical failure. It's not focused on Harry Peak, the main suspect in the arson investigation. It's not focused on the history of the building itself. It's not focused on the sometimes eccentric or colorful librarians who have served at the LA Central Library. It's not focused on the way that libraries around the country serve and enrich their communities. It's not focused on Orleans' own reminiscences about libraries and her mother. In short, it's not focused. There are so many varied threads here, none of which, it seems, was long enough to sustain the book on its own but instead are all alternately woven together in a rather disjointed, choppy way. Starting each chapter with book titles and their library call number to hint at the contents of the chapter is clever. The sheer amount of information is impressive. And the core of each piece of the narrative was interesting but it ultimately went on too long and ended up feeling tedious. Did I hate the book? No. But I certainly didn't love it like I expected either and that makes me sad because there was a lot to enjoy here if it had been edited down and presented differently.

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