It seemed at first such an ordinary title for a book about an obscure event so many years ago. A massive fire in Los Angeles took no human lives, nor did it level the building to the ground. Yet the damage recounted in this non-fiction book reads like a true crime, detective novel, leaving a casualty count, not in human lives, but in the devastating loss of books. Beloved books that contained stories, ideas, knowledge and archived information that was not easily replaceable. Rare, irreplaceable books and historical archived documents that could never be replaced. Not quite the same as human loss, but for those who are book lovers, the pain is almost as keenly felt.
Susan Orlean does more than merely give a bare-bones recounting of an event, overshadowed by the more sensational and globally impacted Chernobyl nuclear accident in April 1986. The chapter describing the day of the fire puts the reader center stage of the happenings from the opening of the library to the first hint of smoke to every lick of flame hitting the spiral of stacks deep within the library’s storage system and worming its way through the upper floors. She doesn’t stop with the incident, rather, Orlean also gives us the full history of the library, almost as a sort of requiem to this loss and a tribute to all those who helped build the library through all it’s various eras to today, where the library is compelled to be more than just a place to house books and shush noisy patrons into silence. Today’s LA Central Library has become a haven for the homeless and a community meeting place, full of all sorts of activities beyond reading and loaning books.
But that’s the LA library, thousands of miles away from where our local book club met in the heartland of the US on a cold February Wednesday evening. As it turned out, none of us at the meeting remembered hearing of this terrible event, and some barely recalled much in the news about Chernobyl, me included. In April 1986, I was still living in Michigan, finishing up my second year of teaching and contemplating a move back to Illinois. If there was any mention of this event in the news, I didn’t pay attention. But I do remember checking out the local library in the small town I later moved to. It was one of the focal points I remember seeing when I first moved to town and I made every opportunity to visit it after I settled in to my new home.
At our Wednesday meeting, Karen opened the discussion with the question about our earliest memories of visiting the library. After reading The Library Book, my mind was filled with so many memories over the course of a lifetime. I hardly remember a time the library wasn’t an important part of my life. In my family, it was a biweekly event to venture across town on an evening and wander through the stacks of the St. Louis County Library Branch and select a book or two to read. My Dad always chose a sci-fi or suspense novel. My sister picked a nurse romance or classic novel and Mom would dutifully guide me through the picture book selections.
As I grew older, so did my taste in books, with fewer pictures, more words and thicker spines. There were multiple branches in the St. Louis County area and we changed it up from time to time, visiting other libraries, so I became well acquainted with them all. Then there were the book mobiles that brought books to our school and to our neighborhood throughout the summer. But those were the advantages of living in a larger urban area.
For some of the other book club members, they only recalled ever visiting one main library in town, which in many ways, sounded far more personal and special than living in a city full of library branches with a different librarian at every visit. Still, somehow, I came to know the library as a place of wonder, full of books that would take me anywhere I wished to go.
As I read Orlean’s book, I gleaned a few quotes that stood out. that summarized, not only the essence of her work, but also my own feelings about the library and reading in general.
“The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library we can live forever.”
“Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.”
In Stephen King’s book, On Writing, he describes the same kind of immortality for writers in that they can continue to live on and bring to life characters, places and events in our minds in full detail, as much as if it really happened, and all this through their words printed on a page. He calls this “telepathy”, the ability to send these signals from one mind to another, even beyond the grave.
It is truly a powerful thing to contemplate as is the Senegal quote that Orlean mentions and our discussion leader, Karen also brought to our attention as her favorite from the book. “When a person dies, it is said their library has burnt down.” Their stories, their memories, wisdom and ideas about life and the world around them are no more. They say there is a book inside everyone. What a tragedy it is when that story, housed in one individual soul is lost forever. Perhaps it is indeed worse than losing thousands of books from one library fire that could eventually be replaced. As much as we love and value books, people are still the irreplaceable library.
1. Had anyone heard of the Central Library fire before reading this book? And did you realilze that this event took place the same day as the Chernobyl nuclear accident?
2. What are your earliest memories of the library? When do you think you got your first library card?
3. Libraries today are more than just a building to house books. Can you give me an example of how libraries have evolved from just book lending?
4. The Library Book confronts the issue of street people inhabiting the library. Is this an issue in your town or local library? How do you feel about how Los Angeles’s Central Library handles the problem?
5. Andrew Carnegie is perhaps the most famous supporter and benefactor of libraries. Can you name a modern equivalent to Andrew Carnegie? Can you name any Carnegie libraries in our area?
6. My favorite phrase in the book was the one from Senegal, when it referred to dying as having “Your library burnt down.” How did this quote resonate with you? What other favorite quotes stood out to you?
7. What did you think about Harry Peak? Guilty or innocent? What about all his alibis? And what about the civil suit he filed against the city for 15 million and the city’s counter suit for 23.6 million? And about trying to get him found guilty in a civil case, but not in a court case?