The Library Book, Susan Orlean.

The Library Book, Susan Orlean.

On the face of it, Susan Orlean’s The Library Book has an easy enough outline to explain — it’s about the enormous and devastating but scarcely reported on (at the time) fire that ravaged the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles in April 1986. Except, it’s not really about that. Or, rather, it’s not just about that. 

What The Library Book is actually about, is the cornerstone that is, the community hub that is, the learning and relief centre, the hotline and helpline, the place of solace, of peace, of reverence and of cultural conservatorship that is the Los Angeles Central Library — and that is my library and yours, as well. 

Susan Orlean is a writer of words you’ve likely read and enjoyed, probably greatly, before. Not only is Orlean a much-lauded staff writer for The New Yorker, but as well, she’s got such literary delights as The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin to her name. The Library Book is her latest book in a list that’s seven titles long, and what a book it is — especially considering it’s the book that almost wasn’t.

It is Orlean’s skill as a journalistic writer that steadies the wandering stories contained within the bright red cover of The Library Book. The whole thing has the feel of a delightful, extra-long-form New Yorker piece. Orlean’s writing style is refined, and there’s no flab. Not even a few stray words, let alone whole self-indulgent sections or chapters. And speaking of chapters — the pacing throughout the read is careful and considered; an easy mix of longer and shorter bites, all of which get started with a little list of Dewey decimal dedications.

In less deft hands, the winding together of the story of the history of the beloved Central Library and all it means and represents with that of the life and times of Harry Peak could not only have been detracting and confusing, but less fulfilling than The Library Book ends up being. It would have been easy for Orlean to turn us, the reader, against Peak, but what she instead manages to do is to intrigue and assuage us with regards to him, and make us want to understand him better.

The book, so far as its subject, is technically categorised as being True Crime and History. Which, at first glance, does seem slightly strange — it’s a book about a library, after all. But what you realise, and quickly, is that the book is in fact just that — suspenseful and measured, and brimming with mystery and intrigue.

What Orlean also manages to do with The Library Book is to make the Los Angeles Central Library — which, over the read, becomes very much a character all its own — sound like a book-lovers wonderland, while at the same time reminding us about the wholehearted appreciation we should all have for the community of hardworking people who populate any given library.

The Library Book, as well as being beautifully written, feels precious and personal, and it’s plain to see why it’s been so frequently mentioned on so many of this year’s best-of lists.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean is published by Atlantic and distributed in Australia by Allen & Unwin. 

It is available now, online and from bookstores.

Thanks to Allen & Unwin for the review copy.


The Library Book  
by Susan Orlean  
History/True Crime 
Paperback, 336 pages  
R.R.P.: $29.99 (AUD)  

Words | Erin Stobie