January 28, 2020

Reading Uncertainly: ‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean

Editor’s Note (i): If you’re still searching for a last-minute gift, then consider this book — it’s the perfect present for book- and library-lovers everywhere! Many thanks to our wonderful and ever faithful book-reviewer Felix Kloman of Lyme for sharing his thoughts on this best-seller, which is described by The New York Times as “a sheer delight…as rich in insight and as varied as the treasures contained on the shelves in any local library” and by USA TODAY as, “a dazzling love letter to a beloved institution and an investigation into one of its greatest mysteries. 

Susan Orlean, a long-time writer for The New Yorker, gives us, at once, a paean to all libraries, a biography of a singular library in Los Angeles, a story of its crippling fire in April, 1986 and its possible arsonist, and, above all, the tale of the devotion and delight of all librarians. It is a love story, too, resonating with all of us enamored of those enticing shelves.

She begins with that fire and its effect on guides and users alike, facing the enormity of the destruction, “This was a shrine to being forgotten; to memories sprinkled like salt, ideas vaporized as if they never had been formed; stories evaporated as if they had no substance and no weight keeping them bound to the earth and to each of us, and, most of all, to the yet-unfolded future”.

What is a library? The author suggests that ”every problem that society has, the library has too,” from homelessness, thievery, fractious adults, uncontrolled children, and waste, yet our librarians manage and smile though it all.  Susan Orlean remains enthralled: “As I stood there, gobsmacked by this serendipity!”

She also wonders about the future of book lending, under the effects of advancing technology, the Internet and social media, concluding with optimism, “Libraries are physical spaces belonging to a community where we gather to share information. … A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of year even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know thee is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you”.

So off I go to wander through the stacks in Phoebe Griffin Noyes, the Lyme Library, the Acton in Old Saybrook, the Essex Library, and even to Middletown. And everywhere I will find smiling librarians and a veritable profusion of riches.

Editor’s Note (ii): ‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean was published by Simon & Schuster, New York 2018.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction, a subject which explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there.
For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His late wife, Ann, was also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visited every summer.

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