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Books: The Library Book
Author: Susan Orlean
Published: October 16, 2018
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
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. (Goodreads)
If that synopsis doesn’t make you want to read this book, I’m not sure what will!
Susan Orlean is has written a masterpiece. I mean it. If you’ve spent much time on this little blog of mine, you’ll likely have noticed that I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. I often find it boring or just not creative enough for me. I want a story, not just information or facts. The Library Book is an addicting story. I didn’t want to put it down.
While the main topic of The Library Book is the 1986 LA Public Library fire, Susan Orlean weaves the tale of what happened that day with her own experiences of libraries, histories of libraries in general and the history of the LA Public Library and what it is today, all with the story of the main suspect in the fire – Harry Peak. The chapters and topics are distributed just perfectly throughout the book so that you can’t stop turning pages. Just as a master of pacing ends a chapter in their novel right at the moment where you have to keep on reading to see who was behind the door, Susan Orlean flows from one chapter to the next and one piece of the puzzle to the next so that while you just need to know what Harry Peak’s old partner said, you also want to know all about why the library garden was paved over. It’s all just as important to you.
This book was delightful. It was both entertaining and richly informative. Susan Orlean can write. And boy, can she research. She lived and breathed this book for years and it shows. It’s both factual and deeply personal.
I can’t recommend The Library Book enough. If you like history, true crime, biographies, or libraries – this book is for you.