Los Angeles Public Library
The Goodhue Building
It wasn't difficult to make my choice for Book of the Year: The Library Book by Susan Orlean. It is one that recently came into my life and comes with a pretty good story as to how I happened to acquire it. I wrote about the surprising circumstances of receiving the book here.
Now that I have read it, I have been recommending The Library Book to just about everyone I talk with. It is part mystery, part history, part biography, and always a tribute to libraries and books. It offers brief lessons in architecture, city planning, social issues, firefighting, arson investigations, and technology.
The idea for the book came about when Ms. Orlean learned of the fire in 1986 that practically destroyed the Los Angeles Public Library. Was the fire caused by accident or was it caused by "an open flame, held by a human hand"?
No matter how it began, before it ended, the fire had raged for seven hours killing 400,000 books and injuring 700,000 more. It was seven years before the doors of the rescued and renovated Goodhue Building opened again to patrons.
Ms. Orlean cannot write a stodgy sentence. Her description of the path of the fire as it roamed through the stacks consuming book after book and shelf after shelf left me with tears in my eyes. Her attempts to experience what it felt like to burn a book (fittingly, a copy of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451) was as traumatizing for me as it was for her.
Here are fascinating facts about how libraries work, their history, and thoughts on their future. Ms. Orlean offers the personality-filled lineage of the heads of the Los Angeles Public Library (founded in 1872). She relates her many conversations with current staff members, department heads, and even the security guards who make their daily rounds.
She writes of mobile libraries around the world including ones powered by donkey, burro, boat, train, or elephant. There is also a nod to the 1936 establishment of the Works Progress Administration's Pack Horse Librarians who for years served the small communities in the mountains of Kentucky, my home state.
She recalls with great fondness trips she made as a child with her mother to her local library. She explores the future of libraries as not just storehouses of material - not only books, but maps, music, art, genealogical sources, and films - but as information and knowledge centers. Town squares, if you will, where people meet and mingle, read and relax.
There are so many thoughtful features in the construction of The Library Book - from its cover that feels like cloth to the card catalog titles that open each chapter to the end papers - but, I won't spoil that surprise.
If you haven't yet bought yourself a Christmas present, I guarantee you won't go wrong treating yourself to The Library Book. This is definitely one you will want for your own library.