REVIEW: The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Susan Orlean, hailed as a “national treasure” by The Washington Post and the acclaimed bestselling author of Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief, reopens the unsolved mystery of the most catastrophic library fire in American history, and delivers a dazzling love letter to a beloved institution—our libraries.
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 false alarm. As one fireman recounted later, “Once that first stack got going, it was Goodbye, Charlie.” The fire was disastrous: It reached 2,000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Investigators descended on the scene, but over thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?
Weaving her life-long love of books and reading with the fascinating history of libraries and the sometimes-eccentric characters who run them, award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean presents a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling story as only she can. With her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, she investigates the legendary Los Angeles Public Library fire to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives. To truly understand what happens behind the stacks, Orlean visits the different departments of the LAPL, encountering an engaging cast of employees and patrons and experiencing alongside them the victories and struggles they face in today’s climate. She also delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from a metropolitan charitable initiative to a cornerstone of national identity. She reflects on her childhood experiences in libraries; studies arson and the long history of library fires; attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; and she re-examines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the library over thirty years ago. Along the way, she reveals how these buildings provide much more than just books—and that they are needed now more than ever.
Filled with heart, passion, and unforgettable characters, The Library Book is classic Susan Orlean, and an homage to a beloved institution that remains a vital part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country and culture.
Dear Ms. Orlean,
Like you, from a young age I have cherished memories of libraries. When I was eight or nine, two of my friends and I were offered the chance to help shelve books in our elementary school library while our classmates were at recess. That we jumped on the opportunity even if we missed going out to play, shows how important we thought books were even at that age.
When I saw this book offered at netgalley, of course I had to find out more about it and I was delighted when offered the chance to review it. See, the library flame still burns brightly in me.
As I read about the fire that devastated the Los Angeles Public Library over 30 years ago, I cried. Seriously, I cried. The shock and horror that must have enveloped the librarians and staff watching it go up in flames as hundreds of firefighters desperately battled to quench the beast reached me through the recitation of that day. The outpouring of help from city residents who formed a human chain to remove then box up what was left in the hopes that those books could be salvaged is only part of the testament to how important the public views libraries to be.
Woven through the story of the fire is the history of libraries and librarians in Los Angeles as well as the bizarre tale of the young man eventually accused of setting the blaze. The many services offered in modern libraries – several of which were pioneered in LA – along with the changed views and methods of arson investigation tell more about this place, the people who work here and the efforts to discover “whodunit.” Then, truly rising like a phoenix, the main library is reborn – the child of determined librarians, the public and some fascinating techniques to extract some the water (3 million gallons) poured on the books that day.
I found myself most interested in learning how the librarians in LA and around the world are reinventing library services as well as the story of and investigation into Harry Peak – the wannabe actor whose alibi and story of what he did that day changed countless times. Did he or didn’t he set the fire? Was it malicious arson, a momentary defiant act or just faulty wiring that finally caught up with a place with a long history of fire code violation warnings? The bits about the history of the library as well as some of the people who started it were less riveting.
The final chapters detailing what libraries around the world are doing and how they’re bringing services to their patrons made me smile. Months ago I featured a news bit about the Biblioburro in Colombia and we linked to this BBC article with photos of readers around the world that this quote brought to my mind.
Worldwide, there are 320,000 public libraries serving hundreds of millions of people in every country on the planet. A large number of these libraries are in conventional buildings. Others are mobile and, depending on the location’s terrain and weather, operate by bicycle, backpack, helicopter, boat, train, motorcycle, ox, donkey, elephant, camel, truck, bus, or horse. In Zambia, a four-ton truck of books travels a regular route through rural areas. In Cajamarca Province, Peru, there is no library building, so seven hundred farmers make space in their homes, each one housing a section of the town library.
Yes I love libraries and librarians rule! The cats of Breaking Cat News agree with me too. B