Susan Orlean has brought us some of the best modern nonfiction writing. She’s led us through the career of a beloved star in RIN TIN TIN, into the obsessive world of rare orchid selling in THE ORCHID THIEF, and in her latest book, THE LIBRARY BOOK, takes us on a fascinating bibliophilic journey—a multifaceted love letter to the power of stories, the places where they live, and their gatekeepers.
At its core, this book is about the fire that tore through the Los Angeles Central Public Library on April 29, 1986. At the time, the story was relegated to the second page of national newspapers only because of the international Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which had occurred just a few days earlier. The 2,000-degree fire burned for seven hours straight and ultimately destroyed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Twenty library patrons were injured and 50 firefighters hospitalized. In the wake of this devastating event, the community came together to salvage the books and the building. Some 30 years later, both the arsonist and motive still remain unknown. Lured to this case by a lifelong passion for reading and books, and inspired by childhood memories of visiting the library with her mother and, later, of those she created with her own son, Orlean treats us to more than just an arson investigation.
Among its cast of characters is the suspected arsonist, Harry Peaks. We learn about his life, his alleged involvement in the fire, and what made him a suspect. We also get a rundown of the events that unfolded that day and how the crime was investigated by the Los Angeles Police Department and Federal agencies. Orlean, after much introspection, even ends up burning a book herself to see how the pages ignite and smolder, and to understand the fire starter impulse. We meet current Los Angeles Public Library workers and historical eccentrics to better understand the momentous evolution of libraries and librarians.
Orlean evaluates the critical role libraries play in our society. Established millennia ago, in a world before smartphones, Google, and Wikipedia, libraries were the primary destinations for knowledge seekers. The book cements the idea of libraries as powerful and essential centers of learning, and Orlean’s personal stories open the door for the reader’s own nostalgia. In reading this book, I recalled so many of my own fond memories of building stacks of books from my summer reading lists and for conducting high school research projects.
Susan Orlean is a riveting storyteller, and THE LIBRARY BOOK beautifully reinforces the importance of this universally beloved and respected institution. Part true crime, part history, and part memoir, THE LIBRARY BOOK may be hard to catalog, but it is sure to satisfy the interest of any reader.