Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Review: The Library Book by Susan OrleanThe Library Book by Susan Orlean
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, history, libraries, true crime
Pages: 336
Published by Simon & Schuster on October 16, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Susan Orlean, hailed as a “national treasure” by The Washington Post and the acclaimed bestselling author of Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief, reopens the unsolved mystery of the most catastrophic library fire in American history, and delivers a dazzling love letter to a beloved institution—our libraries.

On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual false alarm. As one fireman recounted later, “Once that first stack got going, it was Goodbye, Charlie.” The fire was disastrous: It reached 2,000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Investigators descended on the scene, but over thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her life-long love of books and reading with the fascinating history of libraries and the sometimes-eccentric characters who run them, award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean presents a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling story as only she can. With her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, she investigates the legendary Los Angeles Public Library fire to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives. To truly understand what happens behind the stacks, Orlean visits the different departments of the LAPL, encountering an engaging cast of employees and patrons and experiencing alongside them the victories and struggles they face in today’s climate. She also delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from a metropolitan charitable initiative to a cornerstone of national identity. She reflects on her childhood experiences in libraries; studies arson and the long history of library fires; attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; and she re-examines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the library over thirty years ago. Along the way, she reveals how these buildings provide much more than just books—and that they are needed now more than ever.

Filled with heart, passion, and unforgettable characters, The Library Book is classic Susan Orlean, and an homage to a beloved institution that remains a vital part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country and culture.

My Review:

This is Banned Books Week. As part of my own personal Banned Books Week celebration I read and review at least one book about libraries, or books, or a book that has been banned. Or Fahrenheit 451 which kind of hits the trifecta.

The Library Book is not about book banning. Instead, it’s about book burning. Not the kind of book burning that occurs in Fahrenheit 451, but something less political but unfortunately just as deliberate.

It’s about a real-life case that definitely involved the perfect temperature, and conditions, for burning books. An awful lot of books.

But that’s not the only thing in The Library Book. A big part of the story revolves around that calamitous fire, the ultimately inconclusive investigation into its cause, and the massive amount of effort required in its aftermath for the Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library to open for business once more.

In the process of investigating the fire, the author also took a deep dive into the current operations of LAPL. In the end, this book serves as a love letter to one of the great public libraries in the United States, and ultimately to all public libraries.

The process of looking at and into LAPL as it is today, the way that its mission has changed and adapted, and all of the many ways that it continues to serve its rich and varied community, showcases the vital work that libraries perform in the 21st century. And makes the case, yet again, that libraries are not dusty repositories of books.

That the author also rediscovered her own love of libraries, and the sweetness of the childhood memories she had wrapped around them, was the icing on the cake.

Reality Rating A: When I first picked this up I was expecting more than a bit of “insider baseball” – but I’m happy to report that is not the case. The author is looking at the library’s operation from the point of view of an interested bystander, a user of libraries, and not someone on the inside.

That being said, the operations she described will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked in a library, particularly those of us who have worked in some of the large urban libraries. While the Los Angeles community served by LAPL is different from Chicago, many of the internal workings of a large urban library seem to be the same.

The story of the fire is fascinating and heartbreaking. Like the author, I wondered why I did not remember the events when they occurred. I was a working librarian at the time. But the fire, as big as it was (and it was HUGE) could not eclipse the news of the Chernobyl disaster. Not much can compete with the potential end of the world as we know it.

Readers will find the investigation frustrating, as did investigators at the time. The story has all the elements of a true crime thriller – but with no definitive ending. Somebody set this fire, but we’ll never know who. This part of the story lacks closure but is true to life. There was a strong suspect with a weak alibi, but ultimately it’s a mystery.

What emerges from The Library Book, along with smoke that can still be sniffed between the pages of those books that survived the fire, is a portrait of libraries as community institutions, and just how vital they can be when they reach out and serve.

In the end, the story in some ways reminds me of the recent events in Brazil and the fire that consumed the National History Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Both fires were the largest of their kind. Both took place in buildings that were known to be firetraps – places where maintenance and prevention had been neglected for years. And both were conflagrations that caused incalculable losses of knowledge and history.

LAPL rose from its ashes, with a lot of blood, sweat, tears and above all, effort. Perhaps someday the National History Museum of Brazil will as well.

Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer

Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua HammerThe Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 288
Published by Simon & Schuster on April 19th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.
In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.
In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.
Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara’s heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali’s—and the world’s—literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city’s manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants’ march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.

My Review:

April 10-16 is National Library Week, so The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu was an absolutely irresistible title to review this week.

But the story in this book is a lot bigger than just the librarians, and goes a lot further back. Yes, we do have the story of the librarians who rescued the manuscripts, but also a whole lot more. Because the author has taken the story and set it into the history of the region, and provides the context for why the rescue was necessary.

So, this isn’t just the story of the librarians or the rescue. What we have is a history of Timbuktu and the region surrounding it. The author gives us an all too brief glimpse into the scholarly past of the town, and shows how this incredible treasure trove of manuscripts came to be in this city that is a byword for remote.

From the late 13th century through the early 20th, Timbuktu survived successive cycles of open and abundant scholarship, followed by waves of educational repression and suppression. When the scholarship flourished, manuscripts were collected and accumulated by the thousands. During the periods of repression, the manuscripts were hidden in private collections in the city and surrounding areas.

In the 20th century, a man named Abdul Kader Haidara inherited one of the largest of those private collections. He went from being skeptical about his legacy, to becoming a passionate preserver of not only his own archive, but of all of the manuscripts and scrolls that had been hidden, both in the town and in the large area surrounding it.

For decades, Abdul Kader sought grant funds, and eventually was able to create a world-renowned institute for the study and preservation of the manuscripts, said to number nearly 800,000 and nearly all irreplaceable.

But just as in history, his wave of open scholarship was succeeded by a wave of severe repression. In the 21st century, Al Queda and other intolerant forces began to scoop up territory around Timbuktu, as they inserted themselves into the power vacuum after the fall of Qaddafi. When an Al Queda offshoot took control of Timbuktu, Abdul Kader made plans for the manuscripts.

In a long and daring series of convoys, over desert trails and river voyages, and through military checkpoints that had to be bribed or evaded every step of the way, 95% of the precious manuscripts were evacuated to safety.

This is their story.

Reality Rating B: I’m not sure whether to call this one a “Reality” rating or an “Escape” rating. The story is real, but the manuscripts escaped.

This is really three stories rolled into one – first the history that made this collection possible. Second, the tragedy that made the rescue necessary. And finally, the rescue itself.

While the history of Timbuktu and its frequent scholarly golden ages was interesting, the recent history was sometimes hard to follow. While we know in general terms that many of the Islamic fundamentalist sects are extremely hostile towards any historical references that contradict their dogmatic view of history and religion, the attempt to provide the reader with context on which group controlled which part of Mali at which time, and why, often fell a little flat. There were too many names and dates, and not enough background to what made them different from each other.

History, or at least the parts of it that interest this reader, is about people. There were too many unfamiliar names and places infodumped on the reader in too few pages. At the same time, those expositions felt longer than the earlier history, or certainly dragged on longer than the story of Abdul Kader and the rescue of the manuscripts, itself.

It is in Abdul Kader’s story that the book really shines. We are with him as he shoulders the responsibility for his family’s collection, and we suffer along with all of his hardships on his dangerous and ultimately successful trips to acquire more manuscripts for the Institute that set him on his path. It’s his journey, his hopes, and his fears that bring the reader fully into this story and engage the mind, heart and imagination.

Speaking as a librarian, Abdul Kader’s story is one that makes me proud of my profession. He’s a librarian, a rescuer of history, and an inspiration to us all.

national library week 2016