The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Maturity Level: 3
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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.
This book was completely different than I was expecting. Now that I’m re-reading the synopsis I see I can’t blame THAT for misleading me, but for some reason I had it in my head that this was going to be a true-crime book similar to The Orchid Thief. And while there were some elements of that present, that is not the proper way to characterize this book. Instead, this was Orlean’s love-letter to the Los Angeles Public Library.
There was just so much going on, it’s really hard to explain what exactly this book is. Partly it’s Orlean’s memoir. Partly it’s the history of the LA Public Library. Partly it’s the story of the fire and the true crime-esque speculation about who the culprit is. Partly it’s an ode to what the modern library is and how it works. Partly it’s a biography of Harry Peak, the supposed arsonist. It’s all mixed together, but is in no way confusing or boring or dense.
Truly, this was a delightful book. I had such a case of the did-you-knows. I was constantly putting my book down to tell my husband some interesting tid-bit I’d picked up. Orlean’s writing is both personal and sweeping, making the library seem both eternal and homey. I loved seeing the library from so many different perspectives.
The story of the fire and of Harry Peak were both so compelling. I was dying to know what happened, how it happened, whether he really did it. To be honest, I sometimes got impatient reading the history parts of the book, just wanting to read more about the fire. The chapter about the fire was must-read non-fiction. So fascinating! Did you know that when fires get hot enough, the flames can burn blue or even clear? SO INTERESTING!
If you are a library lover, you have GOT to read this book. If you think libraries are just boring, stuffy old collections of books, and librarians are just old women in glasses shushing anyone who talks, read this book to learn the real story. There are so many more important things than books going on in the library, and I am thankful that Orlean brings that so eloquently to the public’s attention.