The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book
by
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?

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Book on my radar – The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Have you heard about The Library Book by Susan Orlean? Released last week, it’s an inquiry into a devastating fire at the Los Angeles Public Library. The 1986 fire lasted 7 hours, reached 2000 degrees, destroyed 400,000 books and damaged another 700,000.

What happened? It may have been arson. Investigators initially arrested a 28-year-old man, actor Harry Peak, but he was never formally charged. And the mystery of how the fire started has never been solved.

In addition to the arson investigation, Orlean tells the story of the Los Angeles library’s beginnings, its colorful personalities, the broader story of libraries, and our meaningful association with books. One of the earliest figures was Mary Foy, who, in 1880 was named head of the library. She was only 18 years old! The author also connects the past to the present and describes the important role modern libraries play in our lives.

You can read about the fire here on the Los Angeles Public Library website and click here to read a great Los Angeles Times article about Orlean and the library. Included are some very interesting pictures of the fire.

Orlean is an award-winning reporter for the New Yorker and a New York Times bestselling author of seven books, including Rin Tin Tin, Saturday Night, and The Orchid Thief.

I’m on a long hold list for this book at my library, but I’m willing to wait. How about you?

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!