Review by Mark Palm:
Trust me, when it comes to the insane nature of possessiveness and books, I know what I am talking about. Although I am not obsessed with books as physical objects I still revel in the ownership of books. Sue me.
For all of this, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the important role that libraries have had in my life. Weekly trips every Saturday with my father to the Carnegie Library in my hometown certainly started me on my way to being the bibliophile I am today, but rather than take an annoying autobiographical detour, I will just recommend The Library Book by Susan Orlean.
Ms. Orlean takes a moving and amusing look at libraries and the people who work in them and use them, mainly by concentrating on the story of a single library, the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. A good portion of her story is focused on the fire that nearly destroyed the LA Library in 1986.
The story of the fire and the man who was accused of setting it is fascinating, and all of the characters are vividly brought to life. The reactions of this disaster on both the people who worked in the library and the community and revealing and often moving. Ms. Orleans uses that tragic event as a glimpse of the impact that the LA Library, and by extension, all libraries, have upon the people who work at and use it every day.
If you are worried about whether or not this one story is interesting enough to sustain an entire book you have probably never read Ms. Orlean before. Just to assuage you, the fire and the destruction that it caused is more of a frame than anything else. It is handled in detail, but Ms. Orleans uses it primarily as a frame to show that while a library is a place with books and maps and equipment it is actually much more. The modern library, in this book, is a community organization that provides all of the services one expects, along with helping children, the hungry and the homeless that find refuge among the stacks.
The author also traces the history of the LA library, and the cavalcade of interesting figures who have worked there, both in the past and the present, and who have shaped it into what it is today. Of particular interest was the stories of the women who frequently ran the early LA branch of the library, often to great success and little acclaim.
All in all The Library Book is both a loving and a realistic paean to libraries, and the people who love them. Like me.