SHREVEPORT – There is an incredible amount of buzz about Susan Orlean’s new release, The Library Book. I’m going to have to put this on my reading list.
The New York Times posted a nifty piece this past weekend in which twelve authors reminisce about their library love; it includes thoughts from Barbara Kingsolver, Curtis Sittenfeld, Amy Tan, and Charles Frazier, among others.
I wish Rick Bragg had written one.
Orleans’s book, The Library Book, is about a little noticed 1986 fire at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles and the subsequent investigation of it. But Michael Lewis at the New York Times says The Library Book is really two books:
The first is about the fire itself — which Orlean eventually reveals was likely the result not of arson but of accident. Arsonists, she explains, are at once, oddly, extremely difficult to catch and unusually likely to be wrongly convicted. Roughly one in a hundred cases of actual arson are successfully prosecuted; at the same time, a surprising number of people have been sent to jail for a crime that was never committed. At any rate, the 1986 fire inside the Central Library, and the subsequent, inconclusive investigation of it, turn out to be a MacGuffin, a trick for luring the reader into a subject into which the reader never imagined he’d be lured: the history and present life of the Los Angeles Central Library. Much of the book consists of its author wandering around a library building, watching and listening to the people inside it. “My hero is Albert Schweitzer,” one of the librarians tells her, after she asks him if he likes his job. “He said, ‘All true living is face to face.’ I think about that a lot when I’m here.”
Who among us doesn’t love a library? I know that I have incredibly fond memories of my neighborhood library where my reading life bloomed. I have immediate memories and associations of every library I’ve ever been in – various university libraries where I’ve done research, local libraries all across the country, the downtown library where I did extensive genealogical research…they are all different and all have their own personalities and quirks. I love a library.
In reflecting on the library of his childhood, Neil Gaiman writes:
Still, if there is a heaven, one of the many mansions it must contain is a red brick Victorian building, all wood and shelves, waiting for me. And the shelves will be filled with books by beloved authors, as good as or better than the ones I knew. I will read my way through the adult library, and then, to attain perfect bliss, I will enter the children’s library, and never need to leave it. Not even to eat my sandwiches in the parking lot.
I totally relate to what he says; I went to my own neighborhood library with much the same intent. I read my way through the children’s section and eventually graduated to the adult section and even dabbled in the non-fiction section. I taught myself sign-language, how to train a dog, tried to teach myself Spanish, learned about Clara Barton and Helen Keller, and learned all about living in a little house in the big woods with Laura Ingalls Wilder.
In last week’s New Yorker, Susan Orlean writes:
Throughout my childhood, starting when I was very young, my mother drove me [to the library] a couple of times a week. We walked in together, but, as soon as we passed through the door, we split up, each heading to our favorite section. The library might have been the first place that I was ever given independence. Even when I was maybe four or five years old, I was allowed to go off on my own. Then, after a while, my mother and I reunited at the checkout counter with our finds. Together, we waited as the librarian pulled out each date card and, with a loud chunk-chunk, stamped a crooked due date on it, below a score of previous crooked due dates that belonged to other people, other times.
It’s a beautiful memory and so real.
I can’t wait to order this book and I’m thoroughly enjoying all the love letters to libraries that it has generated.
Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport and is the author of Cane River Bohemia: Cammie Henry and her Circle at Melrose Plantation. Follow her on Twitter: @paustin110 and Instagram @patbecker25.