If the Los Angeles Public Library were a living, breathing thing, then Susan Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has written a can't-put-it-down biography of its life and the people who worked there. Interspersed throughout the book, beginning on the front pastedown, is the author's true-crime account of the library fire, the disposition of the 700,000 books that were either wet or smoky or both, and the subsequent arson investigation into the cause of the fire, and its prime suspect Harry Peak.
With her pen, Susan Orlean seems to bring past city librarians back to life to tell their stories about the history and the rebuilding of the Los Angeles Public Library. She interviews library staff members, and we learn what they're doing at the library. But most of all, we learn that they love being librarians.
I mentioned that the author begins her writing on the front pastedown with an account of the fire on April 29, 1986. She has chapters but doesn't identify the chapters by title. Instead, she uses the titles of books listed on library catalog cards to identify the subject matter of the chapter:
Timing is everything. I read Chapter 25 a few weeks after The New York Times documented Donald Trump's ten-year billion-dollar losses in the real estate market. So I had to chuckle when I read the title of the first book she uses to infer that part of the chapter is about the real estate market:
I like the book checkout information the author recorded on the library card that is displayed on the rear pastedown:
Ray Bradbury: author of Fahrenheit 451
Edith Gross: her mother
Austin Gillespie: her husband
Her own name, Susan Orlean, with the date of the fire 4-29-86
Earlier, I mentioned something about the library being a living thing. I'll close with the author's words as she roamed around the Los Angeles Public Library:
....The silence was more soothing than solemn. A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you're all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don't need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen....