On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 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. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?
Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.
In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.
Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.
Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.

2019 RHC, Task 19: Un true crime non violento

UNESCO released studies in 1949 and in 1996 listing all the libraries that have been demolished throughout modern history. The number of books destroyed, by UNESCO’s count, is so enormous – in the billions – that I sometimes find it hard to believe there are any books left in the world.

È illuminante vedere come le peggiori nemiche dei libri siano le stesse degli esseri umani: intolleranza e guerre, che hanno fatto strage di biblioteche e culture fin da quando si è iniziato a scrivere. Il senso di perdita che si prova leggendo dei libri andati perduti – due milioni di libri nella sola Italia durante la Seconda Guerra Mondiale – è enorme.

Burning books is an inefficient way to conduct a war, since books and libraries have no military value, but it is a devastating act. Destroying a library is a kind of terrorism. […] Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.

The Library Book è un bellissimo libro sull’amore per i libri e – sopratutto – per le biblioteche, che svolgono un ruolo sociale che va ben oltre il semplice prestare libri. Orlean ci racconta di come la Los Angeles Public Library sia un luogo di riferimento per persone senzatetto o che hanno bisogno socializzare; io posso raccontarvi di come avere una biblioteca con Internet point gratuito possa essere molto importante per chi è in cerca di un lavoro. Per non parlare della possibilità di chiedere discretamente aiuto se si è vittime o testimoni di violenza di genere, bullismo, razzismo, omobitransfobia o altri abusi.

Ma questo non era un libro sull’incendio del 1986 alla Los Angeles Public Library? Sì, se ne parla, ma in una maniera piuttosto dispersiva, ed è il maggior difetto del libro. Ogni capitolo parla di una caratteristica diversa e o di eventi significativi sulle biblioteche in generale o della Los Angeles Public Library, dando l’impressione di lasciare davvero poco spazio all’incendio. Il che lo rende al contempo un libro che farà impazzire d’amore qualunque topo da biblioteca e un libro frustrante nel seguirne ogni divagazione da quello che dovrebbe essere l’argomento centrale.

Quale delle due sensazioni prevale tra amore e frustrazione? Per me decisamente l’amore: sono un topo di biblioteca perso…

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. Because of that frugality, or perhaps independent of it, they also believed that you read a book for the experience of reading it. You didn’t read it in order to have an object that had to be housed and looked after forever, a memento of the purpose for which it was obtained. The reading of the book was a journey. There was no need for souvenirs.