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.