The Library Book
by Susan Orlean


"A constant pleasure to read...Everybody who loves books should check out The Library Book ." -- The Washington Post

"CAPTIVATING...DELIGHTFUL." -- Christian Science Monitor * "EXQUISITELY WRITTEN, CONSISTENTLY ENTERTAINING." -- The New York Times * "MESMERIZING...RIVETING." -- Booklist (starred review)

A dazzling love letter to a beloved institution--and an investigation into one of its greatest mysteries--from the bestselling author hailed as a "national treasure" by The Washington Post Read more...

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More About The Library Book by Susan Orlean

"A constant pleasure to read...Everybody who loves books should check out The Library Book." --The Washington Post

"CAPTIVATING...DELIGHTFUL." --Christian Science Monitor * "EXQUISITELY WRITTEN, CONSISTENTLY ENTERTAINING." --The New York Times * "MESMERIZING...RIVETING." --Booklist (starred review)

A dazzling love letter to a beloved institution--and an investigation into one of its greatest mysteries--from the bestselling author hailed as a "national treasure" by The Washington Post.

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.

  • ISBN-13: 9781476740188
  • ISBN-10: 1476740186
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publish Date: October 2018
  • Page Count: 336
  • Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.35 pounds

Related Categories

Books > History > United States - State & Local - West (AK, CA, CO, HI, ID, MT
Books > History > United States - 20th Century
Books > Language Arts & Disciplines > Library & Information Science - General

BookPage Reviews

Shelf respect

The idea began with an interview. Susan Orlean’s then 6-year-old son had a school assignment to interview a city employee in their new hometown of Los Angeles.

A boy after his mother’s own heart, he chose a librarian. As the pair walked through the doors of a nearby branch library, Orlean, the famed author of The Orchid Thief, was overcome by what she calls “a Proustian kind of moment” filled with memories of countless childhood visits to the library in Shaker Heights, Ohio, with her mother, who worked in a bank but frequently declared that she would’ve loved to have been a librarian.

Now, years later, that moment has come full circle with the publication of Orlean’s spellbinding love letter to this beloved institution, The Library Book, dedicated to her son (now a teenager) and late mother, who died from dementia as Orlean wrote her tribute.

“I got very emotional, thinking, these are amazing places and my association with them is so profound,” Orlean recalls, speaking by phone from Banff, Canada. “I love writing about places that I feel that I know very well but have never really examined. The library was exactly that sort of place.”

Nonetheless, when she casually mentioned to her publisher that she would enjoy spending a year in a library to see what goes on, she knew some sort of essential ingredient was missing from her pitch. “It felt a bit amorphous. I loved the idea of it, but it had a little bit of a saggy-baggy feel, and it didn’t quite create a narrative.”

“I love writing about places that I feel that I know very well but have never really examined. The library was exactly that sort of place.”

It wasn’t long before Orlean discovered—quite literally—the spark to enliven her account. She was invited on a personal tour of the Los Angeles Central Library, and at one point her librarian guide cracked open a book, held it to his face and “inhaled deeply,” saying, “You can still smell the smoke in some of them.”

Orlean was puzzled, asking if patrons had been allowed to smoke in the building in the past. The librarian shot her a wary look, then proceeded to tell her about a disastrous fire that consumed the building on April 29, 1986, reaching 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and burning for more than seven hours, destroying or damaging more than a million books. Miraculously, there were no fatalities.

“I just about fell off my chair,” Orlean says. “It was such an amazingly interesting and complicated story, and it provided me with this other narrative thread to take me through this bigger story of writing about libraries in general.” Adding to the narrative appeal, the fire’s cause remains a mystery—arson was suspected.

Orlean’s account of the arson investigation reads like a whodunit. In her minute-by-minute account of the conflagration, she writes, “The library was spreading fluidly, like spilled ink.” The stacks acted as fireplace flues, while the books provided fuel.” One firefighter later told Orlean, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell.” The main suspect was a young wannabe actor named Harry Peak, who died in 1993. An infuriating yet irresistible personality, Peak had a series of constantly changing alibis.

After interviewing Peak’s family and friends, Orlean concludes that as likable as he seemed to be, he was “mighty close” to being a pathological liar. She notes that he offered each of his changing alibis “with certainty and a full-throated delivery of, ‘This is exactly what I was doing that day.’”

That’s very rare, Orlean explains. “A lot of people have an alibi for a crime. It’s rare to have seven.”

She spent four and a half years researching, interviewing and writing. “I made a decision that I wanted to spend time in every department. Every piece of the library, from the people in the basement cataloging all the way up through all of the subject departments. That took a good amount of time, as well as just going [to the library] a lot to get a feel for the place.”

Orlean’s far-reaching research even involved starting her own little inferno so she could see firsthand what Peak might have experienced if he had indeed started the fire. Appropriately enough, she decided to burn a paperback copy of Ray Bradbury’s classic book-burning novel, Fahrenheit 451. She chose a windless day in her backyard, finding the task “incredibly hard,” because she has “come to believe that books have souls.”

She was amazed to discover that books catch fire “like little bombs.” She adds, “It just seemed like [the book] grabbed the flames and went boom. I remember asking my husband, ‘Did that just happen?’ I kept thinking, ‘Wow, that was just crazy that went so fast.’ There was nothing left.”

With crackling, page-turning prose, Orlean manages to seamlessly weave the story of the library’s devastating fire and the aftermath with a bird’s eye look at both the mechanics of LA’s immense city library and its unexpectedly riveting history. Just like the library itself, Orlean’s book is filled to the brim with a wide array of fascinating details and behind-the-scenes personalities and anecdotes. For book lovers, it’s a veritable treasure trove.

Orlean mentions that librarianship has become more popular. “It really does combine a sense of social contribution with a generation of young people who’ve grown up with information technology. I think there’s a fascination with curating and accessing information, and then you combine that with doing something that feels like it has a social value.”

Might her latest book inspire readers to join the profession?

“If that were to happen, I would feel that I had done something amazing.”


This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo by Noah Fecks.

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