I’m so sorry I can’t recommend this book to you. I really wish I could.
Maybe that is too harsh. Let’s start with something good, like my favorite moment: On page 233 a reader calls into the Los Angeles Public Library and inquires about Celeste Ng. Celeste Ng! Love the mention of a local Cambridge writer!
Orlean’s research is painstakingly extensive, and stretches in many directions. Fifty pages in, this was tolerable, and I found myself telling people the book was “interesting” but that it would be even more interesting to see how she weaves these threads together as the book progresses.
I had to wait until page 200 in order to begin to see the tapestry, and for me, that was a long time to wait. The history of the LA Public Library and its librarians....its burning in 1986...the family story of the presumed arsonist and his trial with the City...a history of book burning throughout time, with special focus on WWII...the existential purpose of book restitution...the efforts of global libraries and philanthropy groups to sustain the exchange of information and provide centers for the fostering of healthier and more connected communities….
I wanted Orlean to commit to a subset of topics and a particular genre, albeit all evidence to the contrary that this was her goal!
Orlean describes many of the patrons and librarians, adding a small, specific detail about each to make them come alive. However, this makes them paradoxically forgettable. There are just too many to remember. On the flip side, the librarians interviewed admit that they don’t really know their patrons, although they are friendly with many. To me, this makes her library feel cold. Maybe it makes sense then, that I tend to seek out my own little neighborhood branch library in my own city over the main hub. I certainly hope that the friendships I’ve made there are made of stronger stuff than the ones portrayed in Orlean’s book! A library can offer zillions of services (and it’s clear from Orlean’s expose that many do), but until we get personal, we won’t have real community.
Orlean seems to argue that as long as we preserve our libraries as book depositories and locations where information can be exchanged, we will preserve our own history for all time. She points out that at the annual convention for the American Library Association in 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said,
“Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die.” (202)
Now, I’m going out on a limb here to argue with such a giant of a man, but isn’t it true that books go out of print all the time? How many of you can really remember the plotline of the novel you read last week? For sure, books become a part of us and in some way, once read, they never die. But the numbers of books destroyed during library burnings of WWII and other wars is staggering. Surely some texts only survive by legend.
What lives on though, is our need to share information. The human need to record life and exchange experiences is pervasive. The need for connection, the need to be seen and known. These are the aspects of the immortal spirit of books that live in most human beings.
Orlean throws all kinds of information at her reader, but I felt like something was missing. What did I want to know more about?
When she first moved to Los Angeles from New York City she took her son to the library for a school assignment. That particular visit prompted a brief romantic journey through her own childhood experience of visiting her local public library with her mother. Later, Orlean concludes her acknowledgements section with this poignant line: “Mom, I made a book for you.”
The reader gets the sense that Orlean set out on this journey to research and document the library as a testimony to her mother and their shared time together. Within the text of the book, Orlean writes that she tried to share her research with her mother at points in the process, but that as dementia set in, her mother was unable to understand. Their shared experience was coming to an end. And indeed, her mother passed away years before the book was published.
I wonder if Orlean wrote this book because she fears death and obscurity. She writes, “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.” (93) But it’s possible that, due to her grief of her mother’s passing, she was unable to put more of herself into her creation.
Knowing more of Orlean and her relationship with her mother would have made this book more memorable for me. I know I’m stuck on memoir lately, and this book wasn’t marketed under memoir, but very early on, Orlean introduces herself as a character. We understand her motives at the beginning, but we lose her character and her motives as the book progresses. She becomes a fly on the wall of history when I want her to interact with it. I wanted her to get personal. We can’t help her or her mother live on if we don’t know them.
But, as my husband points out (because, like Orlean’s husband, mine also reads every word I write) -- we don’t get to choose whether we are remembered. We can put our stories out there, but history will choose from itself, for itself. And we know that history is rewritten all the time as more stories come to light. (I wrote about a similar idea earlier this year on my blog while reviewing Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King, a commentary called Your sacrifices are not in vain, in which I consider how ideas live on even when manuscripts and details are lost.)
These criticisms aside, let me finish by thanking librarians everywhere. If there’s one inspiration I took from this book, it was that I was intrigued by Orlean’s mother’s comment that “if she could have chosen any profession in the world, she would have been a librarian.” (310) If I had a chance for a do-over of my own career path, perhaps I would have considered library science as well.
Librarian, you do good.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.