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.
Potentially Sensitive Areas: Strong language; Mild sexual themes
Booklist starred (August 2018 (Vol. 114, No. 22))
Libraries pulse with stories and not only those preserved in books. When creative nonfiction virtuoso Orlean (Rin Tin Tin, 2011) first visited Los Angeles’ Central Library, she was “transfixed.” Then she learned about the 1986 fire, which many believed was deliberately set and which destroyed or damaged more than one million books and shut the library down for seven years. Intrigued, Orlean embarked on an all-points research quest, resulting in this kaleidoscopic and riveting mix of true crime, history, biography, and immersion journalism. While her forensic account of the conflagration is eerily mesmerizing, Orlean is equally enthralling in her awestruck detailing of the spectrum of activities that fill a typical Central Library day, and in her profiles of current staff and former head librarians, including “brilliant and forceful” Tessa Kelso, who ran into censorship issues, and consummate professional Mary Jones, who was forced out in 1905 because the board wanted a man. Orlean widens the lens to recount the crucial roles public libraries have played in America and to marvel at librarians’ innovative and caring approaches to meeting diverse needs and cutting-edge use of digital technologies. She also attempts to fathom the truth about enigmatic Harry Peak, the prime arson suspect. Probing, prismatic, witty, dramatic, and deeply appreciative, Orlean’s chronicle celebrates libraries as sanctuaries, community centers, and open universities run by people of commitment, compassion, creativity, and resilience.
Kirkus Reviews (July 15, 2018)
An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down. In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all. Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.
About the Author
Susan Orlean has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. She is the author of seven books, including Rin Tin Tin, Saturday Night, and The Orchid Thief, which was made into the Academy Award–winning film Adaptation. She lives with her family and her animals in upstate New York.
Her website is www.susanorlean.com
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