The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book
Susan Orlean

Rating: 3.5

On April 29, 1986, a devastating fire tore through the hallways and stacks of the Los Angeles Public Library. It raged for over seven hours before firefighters could put it out. When it was over, 400,000 books had been destroyed and 700,000 books damaged.

The city’s Central Library, built in 1926, had no sprinklers, no fire doors and many fire code violations. That explains why it took so long to contain the fire, but what caused it? Was it faulty wiring? Was it arson? It’s never been determined, but for a while, a man named Harry Peak was a suspect. Peak was a charmer and a compulsive liar who enjoyed being in the spotlight. He claimed to have been there, then he changed his story, many times. Peak was arrested, but never charged.

The Library Book is a look at the “single biggest library fire in the history of the United States” and how the library coped with this major loss. It’s also a detailed chronicle of the city’s library system. From 1844, when the earliest library in Los Angeles was established, to present day, where library staff work at the beautifully restored Central Library.

I enjoyed reading The Library Book, but it wasn’t what I expected. I thought I was going to be reading a mystery about the fire, but discovered that the book is more of a sentimental history book about libraries and librarians, patrons and administrators. As a library worker, I related to a lot of the descriptions and agree with the author’s observation that libraries are much more than a place to get books. They are as much community centers as they are places of enrichment, learning and exploration.

I also liked reading about how the city saved many of the damaged books, by freeze drying them for two years, with help from McDonnell Douglas, Airdex and NASA. Library staff helped too, just days after the fire, by sorting through and packing books to be shipped off for restoration. I would have liked more on this part of the story and was frustrated to instead find many strung-together chapters with little connection to the fire.

To be fair, the book’s title is true to what’s really inside: a book about a library. But publicity and hype made it sound different to me. I’m glad I read it and learned a few things, but I thought it was a little boring. However, anyone who has special attachment to libraries or childhood memories about visiting them will enjoy the descriptions.

I found a very interesting video about the fire and you can watch it here:


Have you read The Library Book? What did you think?

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

15 thoughts on “The Library Book by Susan Orlean

  1. Barbara, I have read The Library Book. Before I did, however, I read up on Susan Orleans’s background as a writer learning most of her writing experience was in journalism and as a staff writer at The New York for the last several years. That settled into me with the expectation that this would be a similar style of writing.

    Having been involved in the legal field for some 30+ years and assigned numerous research projects, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, including the somewhat boring, off-topic chapters, which from my perspective were part and parcel of the efforts of the various first responder communities to find the person responsible.

    We don’t all see a book the same any more than we see today’s sunset the same. That’s what makes the world go around. I’m glad you derived some enjoyment from it. Have you read anything else of Susan Orleans?

  2. All those books. What a loss – so tragic. In your second paragraph, I misread ‘writing’ for ‘wiring’ at first. It’s a funny thought, that faulty writing could cause a fire. 🤣

    1. Hi Norah. There were many losses and some rare and irreplaceable collections. I was surprised at how much they were able to salvage by freezing the books, though. And yes, faulty writing – that could be really dangerous! Thanks for the visit 🙂

  3. I heard Susan Orlean speak at the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference last year and put the book on my want-to-read list. She’s a fabulous presenter. Very witty and personable. I, too, worked in libraries and for that reason was interested in reading the book. Thanks for the review.

  4. Nice review! I actually loved this book. I thought the pieces about the fire were the most compelling, but I really enjoyed learning about the library’s history and all the other random pieces she ties together.

    1. Hey Lisa! Yes I know I’m in the minority and my library co-workers loved the book. I liked it and it was easy to read – just not what I expected. Have you ever been to the Central Library in LA? It does look beautiful. Thanks for the visit!

  5. I can see why adding more about the fire and sub stories would have enriched the book.
    And I was in the LA area (Long Beach) from fall of 86 to spring 87 and did not know of this event – but I was young and in my own world I guess – lol

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