Likely Stories: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Apr 2, 2020

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I could easily name five or six novels that have brought me to tears at the end of my reading.  Today, I am telling a story that drove me to tears from the first two or three paragraphs.  The Library Book by Susan Orlean has done just that.  This review will be different than most.


Let’s begin.  “On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library.  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 four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. 

The Central Library [in downtown Los Angeles] was opened in 1926.  As Susan writes, “My family was big on the library.  We were very much a reading family, but we were a borrow-a-book-from-the-library family more than a bookshelves-full-of-books-family.  My parents valued books, but they grew up in the Depression, aware of the quicksilver nature of money, and they learned the hard way that you shouldn’t buy what you could borrow. […] // When I headed to college, one of the many ways I differentiated myself from my parents was that I went wild for owning books. […] The reading of the book was a journey” (8-9). 

Susan continues: “What was lost: Don Quixote from 1860, illustrated by French printmaker Gustave Doré.  All the books about the Bible, Christianity and church history.  All biographies of subjects H through K.  All American and British plays.  All theater history.  All Shakespeare.  Ninety thousand books about computers, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, seismology, engineering, and metallurgy.  All of the unbound manuscripts in the science department.  A book by architect Andrea Palladio from the 1500s.  Five and a half mllion American patent listings dating from 1799, with drawings and descriptions. […] Forty-five thousand works of literature, authors A through L.  A leaf from a 1635 Coverdale Bible. […] A first edition of Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book from 1896.  Twelve thousand cookbooks […] All of the art periodicals and every single art book printed on glossy paper […] Information labels on twenty thousand photographs (34).  This barely scratches the surface of many thousands of books lost to a pile of wet and soggy ashes.  This was a tragedy of historic proportions.  It was a match for the great fire of Alexandria in ancient Egypt, which lost an estimated 40,000 scrolls.  Susan Orlean has captured in minute detail of the horror in The Library Book.  5 Dark Stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!