The Library Book
April 30, 2019 8:23 PM - by Susan Orlean - Subscribe

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.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis (7 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This book is a marvelous look at the Library fire that almost completely destroyed the LA main Library in 1986, but it's also a book about the history of public libraries in Los Angeles, and a look at a damaged fabulist who may or may not have set the blaze. In the end there is no way to determine Harry Peak's guilt or innocence, or even if the fire was arson at all. Much more interesting is the look at the LA library today, and all the services it renders to a grateful-but-maybe-not-as-grateful-as-they-should-be public. This book has two wonderful conceits, first in that it essentially has three timelines, first a story about the fire, second a story about this history of the LA public library system, and third an exploration of the modern LA public library and what it means to the author. This sort of blending of timelines in one narrative is a conceit that a lot of non-fiction tries today, some more successfully than others. (Looking at you Winchester!) Orleans, of course succeeds. The second conceit is that before each chapter begins is a list of 4 relevant to the chapter books, Title, Author and Dewey decimal numbers included. Some of these titles are somber, some are silly, and some I have made note of to check out from the library because I have a problem. This is a wonderful book about the wonders of the public library system, and also a fire.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:23 PM on April 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

I feel like I've read every book about the library there is and I'm sort of "used to" them by now but this book was a fresh new delight. It helped to have the central issue of the fire. And as someone whose Mom was also a HUGE library-goer (with me) I could really appreciate Orelean's meta-framing about going to the library with her mom when she was a girl and her writing this book as she lost her mom to (I think) Alzeheimers. So super bittersweet. The one critique I've heard of this from library circles is that it's really about the directors and the building and not AS much about the staff (notably unions, labor issues etc) I haven't heard that from many directions, just that some people were like "Sure people love libraries, they don't have to clean the bathrooms" sort of thing. I actually appreciated how Orlean took us through a lot of different jobs in the library, to show that it's not just MLS-holders who keep the place together. Was looking for alist of directors on the LAPL website and was sad not to find it.
posted by jessamyn at 4:52 PM on May 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

I absolutely loved this book and was basically hounding all my bookish friends to read it when it came out. I had managed to snag an ebook ARC, but I went ahead and bought it when it was published because it’s a book that just NEEDS to be a part of my collection.
I also read that it’s going to be adapted for tv—maybe as a limited series? Can’t remember the details but I know that Orlean is involved.
posted by bookmammal at 7:57 PM on May 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

kanata—I completely agree. I really enjoy true crime so it definitely scratched that itch for me, but all the inside /hidden library stuff was equally fascinating. And then when you add all the great character descriptions—what’s not to love here????
posted by bookmammal at 12:10 PM on May 2, 2019

The one critique I've heard of this from library circles is that it's really about the directors and the building and not AS much about the staff (notably unions, labor issues etc) I haven't heard that from many directions, just that some people were like "Sure people love libraries, they don't have to clean the bathrooms" sort of thing.

Yeah, there was a lot of eye rolling about this one in my libraryish circles, and I went into it with a gimlet eye, but I was pleasantly surprised. I'm very aware of the "vocational awe" that can surround librarianship and punishes library professionals for their dedication, but I don't see this book as contributing to that. I think for a high-level look at a huge library system it did a decent job of portraying a true picture of the profession. The historical stuff was particularly fascinating.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:03 AM on May 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

I thought it was a great history of the library, but it felt like the fire was the driving force of the book, and the unsatisfactory ending brings the book down a bit. I wish she had spent a bit more time fleshing out the library directors, and less time talking about the possible arsonist.
posted by graventy at 9:36 AM on May 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

This book is wonderful on many levels. It's for book lovers, and library lovers, it's for historians and for those who love the histories of places as told by the people who inhabit them. Also it's deeply personal, and Orlean weaves her own personal stake in the tale do delicately that it never seems center stage but always seems present.

I agree that the ending is less than satisfactory, but it doesn't take away from the overall strength of a very good book.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:56 AM on February 10, 2020

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