Susan Orlean's Library-Themed Reading Recommendations

Posted by Cybil on October 10, 2018
Susan Orlean, the author of The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession and staff writer for The New Yorker, is back on bookshelves this October with The Library Book—her investigation into the largest library fire in the history of the United States as well as a love letter to the beloved institutions.

In honor of her new book, Orlean is sharing her favorite library-themed reading. Library lovers, be sure to add her new book to your Want to Read shelf.

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If you are looking for a handy setting to use in your book, may I recommend a library? Besides being one of civilization’s finest achievements and the repositories of all the knowledge in the world, libraries’ utility as a literary device is almost endless.

Think of it: The metaphorical weight of libraries, bursting at their seams with stories, is enormous. Their omnipresence is convenient; in the United States alone, there are 120,000 libraries, which allows you to set your book almost anywhere you’d like: rural, urban, East Coast, West Coast, or, for that matter, anyplace in the world. And because libraries are open to anyone and attract everyone, you can introduce any kind of character into them and it will ring true.

But most of all, the appeal of libraries is universal, so your readers will be happy. And as an additional value-add, libraries have nooks and crannies and stacks where things—all sorts of things—can happen.

Locations, such as libraries, are unacknowledged but important characters in works of literature. They set a tone; they inflect the story. Sometimes they function just as a backdrop, but often place is intrinsic to the tale and enriches the storytelling.

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A book containing a library as an important setting has the additional virtue of being marvelously meta. Like a Russian nesting doll, the library featured in a book is nestled in a book that will, undoubtedly, be nestled in a library. A reader of a book might be reading a book that describes a reader reading a book. It’s just delicious.

The library as a setting in literature isn’t a gimmick. In every instance where they appear, the role the library plays seems necessary to the story. It is hard to imagine Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo without the library (not to mention Miss Franny Block, the fearless librarian who once fought off a bear with a copy of War and Peace). It is impossible to think of Middlemarch without Dorothea borrowing “learned books from the library.”

The list of books that feature libraries prominently and significantly is long and deep. Possession by A. S. Byatt; Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith; The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett; The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai; The Archivist by Martha Cooley; All the Names by Jose Saramago; The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken; The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe; Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon; Fingersmith by Sarah Waters; Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng; Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett; The Sorrow Proper by Lindsey Drager; and The British Museum Is Falling Down by David Lodge, to name just a few.

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And so many children’s and young adults’ books include a library as an important setting, including Matilda by Roald Dahl; Biblioburro by Jeanette Winter; Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein; and all the Harry Potters. There are even children’s books about library cats and library lions and library mice.

Libraries are wonderful to write about because they are magical and a little mysterious. They are full of voices, and they call out questions. Who wrote all these books? you can’t help but wonder, And what were they thinking when they wrote them? Each individual book has its origin story, its reason for being, its journey into the world.

What’s more, each book in a library develops its own history, made of the legion of readers who have borrowed it. That history is almost like a fingerprint, unique to each volume: a map of travels that we can only imagine, places the book has visited that we will never see. Books in a library create a connective tissue among the readers who have shared them. When libraries used paper cards to keep track of checkouts, it was possible to see who else in town had borrowed, say, Gulliver’s Travels before you did.

Now the process of book borrowing is far more private, but the aura of sharing still lingers; you are aware, when you take a book home from the library, that it has been in many other hands. Bookstores—cousins to libraries, in a sense—are marvelous enterprises, too, but they are an outflow-only enterprise. What makes libraries resonate so deeply is how we share them, and how their books circulate like lifeblood in and out of the library, in and out of every corner of the city.

When the Library of Alexandria was in its heyday, it filled the Egyptian people with wonder and a touch of fear. The cumulative power of the knowledge it contained struck people as being almost unworldly. The library contained more information than any one person could master; it surpassed the capacity of the human brain.

We may no longer be cowed by the contents of a library, but we still feel awed: A library vibrates with humankind’s intellectual and artistic achievements in a way that makes it feel alive with possibilities and triumphs.

What distinguishes humanity from other animal life is that we tell each other stories, and we record those stories so they can be told again and again, time without end. The library is our big, deep, bottomless well of those stories, a source so rich that it fills us with delight and wonder and amazement. May it never run dry.

Susan Orlean's The Library Book will be available on October 16. Add it to your Want to Read shelf here.

Comments Showing 1-14 of 14 (14 new)

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message 1: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Thanks for the recommendation. I would not want to have missed this book.

message 2: by Kimi (new)

Kimi So excited to hear about this book!

message 3: by Chris (new)

Chris Shadow of the wind!!!

message 4: by Sherrey (new)

Sherrey I've read/reviewed The Library Book, and I loved it. See my review.

message 5: by Amy (new)

Amy Ballard This looks like a splendid read. Just finished reading a library-themed anthology featuring my story along with 24 others: Shhhh. . .Murder! Will be watching for The Library Book!

message 6: by Tucker (new)

Tucker  (TuckerTheReader) I read a small bit of The Library Book but didn't really get into it

message 7: by Bookfan (new)

Bookfan Here's one that's on my TBR list:

message 8: by T (new)

T M I really like books written about books... this is a good recommendation. :)

message 9: by Pete (new)

Pete Davies Not sure how any list of books featuring libraries could omit Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose where the library plays a central role and the monks are described as the means by which books talk to other books. Still one of my favourites.

message 10: by Yrinsyde (new)

Yrinsyde 120,000 libraries of all kinds in the US - that includes special, government, hospital, academic, public ... At first I thought Orlean meant public but I stand corrected. However, not all libraries are open to everyone. I'm reading the Diary of a Bookseller at the moment about the largest second hand bookshop in Scotland. It's great!

message 11: by Rahma (new)

Rahma Krambo Please forgive me for tooting my own horn, but my love for libraries resulted in my book: Guardian Cats and the Lost Books of Alexandria

I love this list! Adding many to my To Read shelf.

message 12: by Adricarrillo (new)

Adricarrillo Wonderful recommendation!
If you ever feel like reading a blog post in Spanish about libraries in Colombian novelas, please take a look at this
Jorge Orlando Melo is one of the many Colombians interested in libraries, education, culture; not only because of his librarían experience but also for his love for books.

message 13: by Ksorci (new)

Ksorci I agree with bookfan about Joshua Hammer's The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts -

but what about Ali Smith's Public Library and Other Stories - it's also awesome....

and Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader is my favorite.

message 14: by Ana (new)

Ana Palma How can someone in love with books and livrarias forget Eco's The Name of the Rose

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