There is a secret formula that decides when I chose to read a book that’s been recommended, only I’m not sure exactly how many recommendations it takes. It’s at least three, if I have no familiarity with the author. If I do know the author — or at least idolize them, as I do Susan Orlean — all it takes is knowing she has a new book.
How perfect is it that I was able to check out The Library Book from my library?
“We can’t keep this one on the shelves,” the librarian said as she checked me out. She’s the one who, when I give her my name, always asks, “How are we spelling that?”
Orlean’s books are the perfect triad of research, essay, and commentary. In this case the research is about the fire at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, the essay is about Orlean’s mother, and the commentary is about the sacred space of libraries — the space where book and reader meet.
In Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home, she quotes literary critic Michael Dirda on the thrill of physical books. He says, “Books are home — real, physical things you can love and cherish.”
That’s why Susan Orlean wrote The Library Book, because of the real, physical books inside them and what happens when those are destroyed. After moving to Los Angeles she took her son to the library, and it reminded her of all the times her mother took her to the library in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Even though the L.A. Central Library was new to her, Orlean knew she was home.
All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen.”
I don’t think physical books are the only way to read. I love ebooks for the ease of a search tool, especially when I’m reviewing a book. I love audiobooks for the way stories can be so easily rewound, thirty seconds at a time or a whole chapter, and the way the words integrate themselves into my bike rides or road trips.
But a physical book orients itself into my consciousness by the way it’s laid out. Where does Orlean mention her mother’s dementia? Oh, it’s in the middle of page 92, on the left. That scene with the security guard from Texas who wants to retire to Sri Lanka and feels perfectly confident moving to a place he’s never been because, as he tells Orlean, “But I’ve seen the pictures, and I’ve read the books.” — that’s also on a left page, 248, at the bottom.
I suspect Orlean and her publisher wanted this book to be checked out because it has visual gifts that don’t translate as well on a screen. For example, there is no table of contents. The book does have numbered chapters, but each one opens with library cards, as if pulled from an old-time Dewey Decimal file. The titles signal what’s in the chapter. So in the chapter with the security guard, two of the books listed include these:
Daily Activity Patterns of the Homeless: A Review (1988)
By Reich, Shane
Madame Chiang Kai-Shek: China’s Eternal First Lady (2006)
By Li, Laura Tyson
Likewise, the inside back cover has a replica of a library date card, with checkout dates and signatures. Each one but the last is scratched out, as if the previous person had turned it back in. That graphic tells a story that unfolds within this larger story.
AUG 24 1950 Ray Bradbury
10/31/55 Edith Gross
4-28-86 Susan Orlean
SEP 10 2010 Austin Gillespie
The part of The Library Book that surprised me most is in chapter 5, when Orlean burns a book, for research:
Burning a book was incredibly hard for me to do. Actually, doing it was a breeze, but preparing to do it was challenging. The problem was that I have never been able to do harm to a book. Even books I don’t want, or books that are so worn out and busted that they can’t be read any longer, cling to me like thistles.”
If you have never been to your local library, now is your chance. Get a library card! Make a regular date to browse and find books you didn’t know you were looking for. If they don’t have The Library Book on the shelves, the heroes who work behind the desk will be happy to order it for you through Interlibrary Loan. (At my library this service costs 75 cents.)
Do it for Orlean, who ends the Acknowledgments this way: “Mom, I made a book for you.”
My People, Langston Hughes, photographs by Charles R. Smith Jr.
Not A Copper Penny in Me House: Poems from the Caribbean, Monica Gunning, illus. Frané Lessac
Poetry for Young People: Emily Dickinson, People: Emily Dickinson, edit. Frances Schoonmaker Bolin, illus. Chi Chung
All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeliene L’Engle (Writing Toward Joy workshop starts Monday, February 4, with this book as our text)
Forgiving God, Hilary Yancey
The Library Book, Susan Orlean
Early Readers and Picture Books
Only One Woof, James Herriot (Join us for next week’s Children’s Book Club, February 8!)
Middle Grade and YA
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (I can make a good case that this classic is actually YA.)
1. When is the last time you checked out a book from the library? If your answer isn’t “last week,” it’s been too long.
2. Did you make some time for deep reading this month? What stories stirred your soul?
Browse more Reader, Come Home
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro