Summary from Goodreads:
On the morning of April 28, 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.
I remember reading about the Los Angeles Central Library fire in other books about libraries, chiefly Patience and Fortitude. The intriguing thing about the fire is that is was never solved – not in ignition and not in culprit, if indeed the fire was deliberately set. So I was really interested in Susan Orlean’s new book, titled The Library Book.
Now, The Library Book is three things:
- A reminiscence about books and reading and libraries and how Orlean had been a heavy library user as a child but grew out of it as an adult.
- A history of the development of the Los Angeles Central Library as an institution and what the library offers the Los Angeles area in the twenty-first century
- An account of the 1986 fire that gutted the Central Library and of the decidedly odd man suspected of setting the fire
Although there are some sections of the book that don’t flow together as well as they might due to the three different themes running through the book, I found Orlean’s work to be fun. The Library Book is a very readable and warm (haha) book from one library lovers to another. Orlean could have written a completely separate book about Harry Peak, the man arrested for setting the fire (never charged due to lack of evidence of arson, or even a conclusive ignition point for the fire – the building was so in need of modernization the fire could have started spontaneously). Peak is both a larger-than-life and an enigmatic character and as such is completely fascinating.
As a little bonus for library nerds, each chapter is headed by titles of several books and their associated call numbers (nerd catnip) pertaining to the subject of the chapter.
The Library Book is out October 16.
Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.