Shelf Care: Susan Orlean's The Library Book is a marvellous love letter to libraries

Susan Orlean's The Library Book is a riveting account of the most devastating library fire in American history.
Susan Orlean's The Library Book is a riveting account of the most devastating library fire in American history.PHOTOS: ATLANTIC BOOKS, NOAH FECKS

Non-fiction

THE LIBRARY BOOK

By Susan Orlean

Atlantic Books/ 2018/ 336 pages/ $21.95/ Available here

In 1986, a fire broke out in the Los Angeles Public Library, destroying 400,000 books and damaging 700,000 more.

"At first, the smoke in the Fiction stacks was as pale as onionskin. Then it deepened to dove grey. Then it turned black. It wound around Fiction A through L, curling in lazy ringlets. It gathered into soft puffs that bobbed and banked against the shelves like bumper cars. Suddenly, sharp fingers of flame shot through the smoke and jabbed upward. More flames erupted. The heat built. The temperature reached 451 degrees and the books began smouldering. Their covers burst like popcorn."

Susan Orlean's The Library Book is a riveting account of the most devastating library fire in American history. The sight of books burning is a terrible one to behold. Yet her writing crackles with such intensity that it is nigh impossible to stop looking.

Orlean, arguably one of the best writers of literary non-fiction in English, has come up with a soul-affirming masterpiece. While the book begins with a fire, it is ultimately a love letter to the library, and the people who wander in and out its doors.

And what a spellbinding read it is. The Library Book is filled with fascinating facts and a colourful cast of characters - from Harry Peak, the young, blond actor suspected to have set the building on fire; to eccentric librarian Charles Lummis, who took up his post in 1905, hiring a "Human Encyclopaedia" to answer patrons' questions and later setting up a support group for librarians known as The Bibliosmiles.

The Library Book, which also shines a light on the important communal role libraries play in society, will resonate with anyone who loves books. If you have ever wandered down the aisle of a public library, filled with quiet reverence for all the life and wisdom it contains, this is the book for you.

  • Shelf Care is a twice-weekly column that recommends uplifting, comforting or escapist books to read while staying home during the Covid-19 pandemic.