The Library Book Discussion Journal

Our first responder for Susan Orlean’s The Library Book gave his opinion to me at the end of last month’s meeting. He attends several library-sponsored book clubs and because we all have the need for books with a lot of available copies, ones that are well-reviewed, diverse, relevant, enlightening and engaging, if not entertaining, we often share and read the same books. He said The Library Book was “all right,” but the mystery of the fire wasLibraryBookCover underwhelming and not actually solved. When I found myself falling asleep as soon as I tried to read, I started to worry  about how the group would like the book – but there was hope – our next responder mentioned that it started slow but would get interesting at page 150!

So what did we think? Our responses were varied, personal, and mostly positive. I had two responses emailed to me that I will post in the comments. I read them aloud at the meeting. One was nostalgic and the other noted specific details. I was particularly glad to be reminded of “the story of deaf and autistic CJ [whose] ability to index the maps gave us a better understanding of autism. Very impressive.”

One of our group lived in the Los Angeles area as a youth and enjoyed the familiarity. His family nearly moved to Harry Peak’s hometown of Santa Fe. The area was filled with orchards and more open space than many of us probably picture when we think of L.A. His first job was working in a theater in downtown Los Angeles. Another member shared how she remembered visiting the La Brea Tar Pits as a newlywed and at that time it was basically a vacant lot with black puddles.

The same reader who found the book initially slow was engaged by the story of Harry Peak. She shared how she has loved every library everywhere she has ever lived, with particularly fond memories of the Cleveland library, built by Andrew Carnegie.[i]

Another member liked the book because she could tell the author’s “whole heart was in it.” She admired the author’s passion and ability to capture the librarians’ suffering because of the fire. Before reading this book, our member had always taken libraries for granted. She didn’t understand how much went into a library system or how much history is lost from fires in libraries.

I asked what stood out from other book club discussions, and one of us said that his other group had focused on the fire and arson – on the revelation that fire investigators act more like police looking for a firebug rather than investigators, sending innocent people to prison (and death). A couple of members had already mentioned that the library had been a fire trap, with crowded combustibles, faulty wiring, and ignored, redundant fire alarms. I think most of us agree that Harry Peak did not set the Los Angeles Central Library fire. Looking for a guilty party distracted from the library’s responsibility.

We discussed politicking, kicking out a woman director in favor of a man, Ray Bradbury educating himself in the library, Richard Wright’s story of being denied a library card,[ii] eccentric Lummis walking from Ohio to Los Angeles, the evolution of libraries, and the MGM Grand fire of 1980[iii].

I had been so inspired by the reviews[iv] at the library’s opening that my husband and I made a day trip to see the Los Angeles Public Library. It was amazing. We really don’t have anything like it in Las Vegas. The combination of art and architecture, the reverence for the building, its contents and its purpose is inspiring. I shared a video I found online to give visual support to the book’s description and my own enthusiasm.[v]RotundaChandelier

As I read the book, I was often disturbed by a bit of pretentiousness, the lack of footnotes, a lack of precision, and during our tour of the library, the docent mentioned that the book had some inaccuracies. But the stories in spots are like collections in libraries. And listening to our stories I feel fond and appreciative of the commitment to create something worthy of preservation.  For December, we are scheduled to read The Personal Librarian, so we may touch on some of these topics again. Please join us.

  • Other Works Discussed:
  • Black Boy (1945) Richard Wright
  • Desk Set (1957) Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy
  • The Public (2018) Emilio Estevez. This film was not actually discussed at our meeting, but it is an interesting film because it captures well how urban public librarians often see themselves.

[i]  Emily Bamforth and David Petkiewicz, (2019, July 8). Cleveland had 15 Carnegie libraries: See them then and now. Cleveland. Retrieved September 14, 2022, from 

[ii] This story is NOT told in The Library Book. It happened it Georgia and is told in the autobiography of Richard Wright, Black Boy. This story is often told by librarians, but the impact is much more profound.

[iii] Javier worked at the MGM during this time. I am pasting a link to an LVRJ article in case you are interested.

[iv] The Library Book Page 91: “‘Like all creative art, it is disturbing: it leaves and impression that is satisfying yet mystifying. I follows no accepted order of architecture but through it strains of the Spanish, of the East, of the modern European, come and go like folk songs in a great symphony, rising to new and undreamt of heights in an order truly American in spirit.’ Another writer described the building as being ‘as frank and open and honest as the eye of a little child. It looks one in the face and knows no fear or shame. It has nothing to explain and need make no apologies.'”

[v] I am pasting three video tours that show slightly different perspectives. I showed the 10 minute one without sound. It had an ad in the middle that had to be skipped.