The library was a sacred place for Susan Orlean, having grown up visiting one regularly with her mother, and having treasured memories from these times. So when she learned about the enormous fire that destroyed the Central Library in Los Angeles in 1986, it stirred something in her to investigate what happened, why someone might seek to destroy such a sanctified place. In doing so, she also learns and then shares with us the history of this library and of its librarians.
This story had the potential to be interesting, and in some parts it was, but there were too many flaws in the writing, sadly – at least in my opinion. The story trajectory felt to me as if it was strapped onto a pool ball after someone yelled, “break.” The timeline was erratic, skipping back and forth from one time period to another. The topics switched in rapid fire from the librarians’ histories to the story of Harry Peal (the primary arson suspect), from the architectural details of the construction of the library to the function of libraries in general. While each part did capture my attention – I love libraries too! — the transitions were not smooth and it was hard to know what the purpose of the book actually was. Even the most intriguing part of the story, the investigation into the setting of the fire, was, honestly, anticlimactic and unsatisfying.
That is not to say that I did not learn from this book. The book exposed many sides of the library that may not be apparent to all – such as the broader functions that they have come to serve in many communities. Most public libraries have evolved to become community centers and social service resources in many cities and towns throughout the United States, particularly as resources have dried up from other sources. Librarians have had to become social workers, teachers, career counselors, and public health advocates in this age of limited resources and cutbacks – more a statement of bad government decisions than anything else – but librarians and public libraries have stepped up often to fill the voids in many communities.
Yet, while I did learn, it felt more like work, and I could not help wondering throughout the book what the purpose of the book was. Was it a book about a crime (arson)? Was it a book about a library? Was it a book about librarians? Still not quite sure.
Curious to know what others think!