A WASHINGTON POST TOP 10 BOOK OF THE YEAR * A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER and NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2018
“A constant pleasure to read…Everybody who loves books should check out The Library Book.” —The Washington Post
“CAPTIVATING…DELIGHTFUL.” —Christian Science Monitor * “EXQUISITELY WRITTEN, CONSISTENTLY ENTERTAINING.” —The New York Times * “MESMERIZING…RIVETING.” —Booklist (starred review)
A dazzling love letter to a beloved institution—and an investigation into one of its greatest mysteries—from the bestselling author hailed as a “national treasure” by The Washington Post.
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.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Library Book 1.
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Even in Los Angeles, where there is no shortage of remarkable hairdos, Harry Peak attracted attention. “He was very blond. Very, very blond,” his lawyer said to me, and then he fluttered his hand across his forehead, performing a pantomime of Peak’s heavy swoop of bangs. Another lawyer, who questioned Peak in a deposition, remembered his hair very well. “He had a lot of it,” she said. “And he was very definitely blond.” An arson investigator I met described Peak entering a courtroom “with all that hair,” as if his hair existed independently.
Having a presence mattered a great deal to Harry Omer Peak. He was born in 1959, and grew up in Santa Fe Springs, a town in the paddle-flat valley less than an hour southeast of Los Angeles, hemmed in by the dun-colored Santa Rosa Hills and a looming sense of monotony. It was a place that offered the soothing uneventfulness of conformity, but Harry longed to stand out. As a kid, he dabbled in the minor delinquencies and pranks that delighted an audience. Girls liked him. He was charming, funny, dimpled, daring. He could talk anyone into anything. He had a gift for drama and invention. He was a storyteller, a yarn-spinner, and an agile liar; he was good at fancying up facts to make his life seem less plain and mingy. According to his sister, he was the biggest bullshitter in the world, so quick to fib and fabricate that even his own family didn’t believe a word he said.
The closeness of Hollywood’s constant beckoning, combined with his knack for performance, meant, almost predictably, that Harry Peak decided to become an actor. After he finished high school and served a stint in the army, Harry moved to Los Angeles and started dreaming. He began dropping the phrase “when I’m a movie star” into his conversations. He always said “when” and not “if.” For him, it was a statement of fact rather than speculation.
Although they never actually saw him in any television shows or movies, his family was under the impression that during his time in Hollywood, Harry landed some promising parts. His father told me Harry was on a medical show—maybe General Hospital—and that he had roles in several movies, including The Trial of Billy Jack. IMDb—the world’s largest online database for movies and television—lists a Barry Peak, a Parry Peak, a Harry Peacock, a Barry Pearl, and even a Harry Peak of Plymouth, England, but there is nothing at all listed for a Harry Peak of Los Angeles. As far as I can tell, the only time Harry Peak appeared on screen was on the local news in 1987, after he was arrested for setting the Los Angeles Central Library on fire, destroying almost half a million books and damaging seven hundred thousand more. It was one of the biggest fires in the history of Los Angeles, and it was the single biggest library fire in the history of the United States.
Central Library, which was designed by the architect Bertram Goodhue and opened in 1926, is in the middle of downtown Los Angeles, at the corner of Fifth Street and Flower, on the downslope of a rise once known as Normal Hill. The hill used to be higher, but when it was chosen as the site of the library, the summit was clawed off to make it more buildable. At the time the library opened, this part of downtown Los Angeles was a busy neighborhood of top-heavy, half-timbered Victorians teetering on the flank of the hills. These days, the houses are gone, and the neighborhood consists of dour, dark office towers standing shoulder to shoulder, casting long shafts of shade across what is left of the hill. Central Library is an entire city block wide, but it is only eight stories high, making it sort of ankle-height compared to these leggy office towers. It projects a horizontality that it probably didn’t in 1926, when it debuted as the high point in what was then a modest, mostly four-story-tall city center.
The library opens at ten A.M., but by daybreak there are always people hovering nearby. They lean against every side of the building, or perch half on and half off the low stone walls around the perimeter, or array themselves in postures of anticipation in the garden northwest of the main entrance, from which they can maintain a view of the front door. They watch the door with unrewarded vigilance, since there is no chance that the building will open earlier than scheduled. One recent warm morning, the people in the garden were clustered under the canopy of trees, and beside the long, trickling watercourse that seemed to emit a small breath of chilled air. Rolling suitcases and totes and book bags were stashed here and there. Pigeons the color of concrete marched in a bossy staccato around the suitcases. A thin young man in a white dress shirt, a hint of sweat ringing his underarms, wobbled on one foot, gripping a file folder under his arm while trying to fish a cell phone out of his back pocket. Behind him, a woman with a sagging yellow backpack sat on the edge of a bench, leaning forward, eyes closed, hands clasped; I couldn’t tell if she was napping or praying. Near her stood a man wearing a bowler hat and a too-small T-shirt that revealed a half-moon of shiny pink belly. Two women holding clipboards herded a small, swirling group of kids toward the library’s front door. I wandered over to the corner of the garden, where two men sitting by the World Peace Bell were debating a meal they’d apparently shared.
“You have to admit that garlic dressing was good,” one of the men was saying.
“I don’t eat salad.”
“Oh, come on, man, everyone eats salad!”
“Not me.” Pause. “I love Dr Pepper.”
Between each volley of their conversation, the men cast glances at the main entrance of the library, where a security guard was sitting. One of the doors was open, and the guard sat just inside, visible to anyone passing by. The open door was an irresistible conversation starter. One person after another approached the guard, and he deflected them without even blinking an eye:
“Is the library open yet?”
“No, it’s not open.”
Next: “Ten A.M.”
Next: “You’ll know when it’s time.”
Next: “No, not open yet.”
Next: “Ten A.M., man”—shaking his head and rolling his eyes—“ten A.M., like it says on the sign.”
Every few minutes, one of the people approaching the guard flashed an identification badge and was waved in, because the library was actually already in gear, humming with staff members who were readying it for the day. The shipping department had been at work since dawn, packing tens of thousands of books into plastic bins. These were books requested at one of the city’s seventy-three libraries, or that had been returned to one in which they didn’t belong and were being repatriated, or they were brand-new books that had been just cataloged at Central Library and were now on their way to one of the branches. Security guards are at the library around the clock; the guards on duty had started their shift at six A.M. Matthew Mattson, who runs the library’s website, had been at his desk in the basement for an hour, watching the number of website visits surge as the morning advanced.
In each of the eight subject departments throughout the building, librarians and clerks were tidying shelves, checking new books, and beginning the business of the day. The reading tables and carrels were empty, each chair tucked under each table, all enfolded in a quiet even deeper than the usual velvety quiet of the library. In the History Department, a young librarian named Llyr Heller sorted through a cart of books, weeding out the ones that were damaged or deeply unloved. When she finished, she pulled out a list of books the department wanted to order, checking to make sure they weren’t already in the collection. If they passed that test, she would look at reviews and librarian tip sheets to make sure they warranted buying.
In the Children’s Department, children’s librarians from around the city were gathered in the puppet theater for their regular meeting. The topic being discussed was how to run an effective story time. The thirty full-size adult humans who were wedged into the tiny seats of the theater listened to the presentation with rapt attention. “Use an appropriate-sized teddy bear,” the librarian running the session was saying as I walked in. “I had been using one I thought was the size of a baby, but I was wrong—it was the size of a very premature baby.” She pointed to a bulletin board that was covered with felt. “Don’t forget, flannel boards are wonderful,” she said. “You may want to use them for things like demonstrating penguins getting dressed. You can also hide things inside them, like rabbits and noses.”
Upstairs, Robert Morales, the library’s budget director, and Madeleine Rackley, the business manager, were talking about money with John Szabo, who holds the job of Los Angeles city librarian, in charge of all the libraries in Los Angeles. Just below them, the main clock clicked toward ten, and Selena Terrazas, who is one of Central Library’s three principal librarians, stationed herself at the center axis of the lobby so she could keep watch over the morning rush when the doors officially opened.
There was a sense of stage business—that churn of activity you can’t hear or see but you feel at a theater in the instant before the curtain rises—of people finding their places and things being set right, before the burst of action begins. The library entrances have been thrown open thousands of times since 1859, the year that a public library first existed in Los Angeles. Yet every time the security guard hollers out that the library has opened, there is a quickening in the air and the feeling that something significant is about to unfold—the play is about to begin. This particular morning, Selena Terrazas checked her watch, and the head of security, David Aguirre, checked his as well, and then Aguirre radioed the guard at the entrance to give the all-clear. After a moment, the guard clambered off his stool and pushed the door open, letting the buttery light of the California morning spill into the entry.
A puff of outside air wafted in and down the hall. Then, in an instant, people poured in—the hoverers, who bolted from their posts in the garden, and the wall-sitters, and the morning fumblers, and the school groups, and the businesspeople, and the parents with strollers heading to story time, and the students, and the homeless, who rushed straight to the bathrooms and then made a beeline to the computer center, and the scholars, and the time-wasters, and the readers, and the curious, and the bored—all clamoring for The Dictionary of Irish Artists or The Hero with a Thousand Faces or a biography of Lincoln or Pizza Today magazine or The Complete Book of Progressive Knitting or photographs of watermelons in the San Fernando Valley taken in the 1960s or Harry Potter—always, Harry Potter—or any one of the millions of books, pamphlets, maps, musical scores, newspapers, and pictures the library holds in store. They were a rivering flow of humanity, a gush, and they were looking for baby-name guides, and biographies of Charles Parnell, and maps of Indiana, and suggestions from a librarian for a novel that was romantic but not corny; they were picking up tax information and getting tutored in English and checking out movies and tracing their family history. They were sitting in the library, just because it was a pleasant place to sit, and sometimes they were doing things that had nothing to do with the library. On this particular morning, in Social Sciences, a woman at one of the reading tables was sewing beads onto the sleeve of a cotton blouse. In one of the carrels in History, a man in a pin-striped suit who had books on his desk but wasn’t reading held a bag of Doritos under the lip of the table. He pretended to muffle a cough each time he ate a chip.
I grew up in libraries, or at least it feels that way. I was raised in the suburbs of Cleveland, just a few blocks from the brick-faced Bertram Woods branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library system. Throughout my childhood, starting when I was very young, I went there several times a week with my mother. On those visits, my mother and I walked in together but as soon as we passed through the door, we split up and each headed to our favorite section. The library might have been the first place I was ever given autonomy. Even when I was maybe four or five years old, I was allowed to head off on my own. Then, after a while, my mother and I reunited at the checkout counter with our finds. Together we waited as the librarian at the counter pulled out the date card and stamped it with the checkout machine—that giant fist thumping the card with a loud chunk-chunk, printing a crooked due date underneath a score of previous crooked due dates that belonged to other people, other times.
Our visits to the library were never long enough for me. The place was so bountiful. I loved wandering around the bookshelves, scanning the spines until something happened to catch my eye. Those visits were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived. It wasn’t like going to a store with my mom, which guaranteed a tug-of-war between what I wanted and what my mother was willing to buy me; in the library I could have anything I wanted. After we checked out, I loved being in the car and having all the books we’d gotten stacked on my lap, pressing me under their solid, warm weight, their Mylar covers sticking a bit to my thighs. It was such a thrill leaving a place with things you hadn’t paid for; such a thrill anticipating the new books we would read. On the ride home, my mom and I talked about the order in which we were going to read our books and how long until they had to be returned, a solemn conversation in which we decided how to pace ourselves through this charmed, evanescent period of grace until the books were due. We both thought all of the librarians at the Bertram Woods Branch Library were beautiful. For a few minutes we would discuss their beauty. My mother then always mentioned that if she could have chosen any profession at all, she would have chosen to be a librarian, and the car would grow silent for a moment as we both considered what an amazing thing that would have been.
When I was older, I usually walked to the library myself, lugging back as many books as I could carry. Occasionally, I did go with my mother, and the trip would be as enchanted as it was when I was small. Even when I was in my last year of high school and could drive myself to the library, my mother and I still went together now and then, and the trip unfolded exactly as it did when I was a child, with all the same beats and pauses and comments and reveries, the same perfect pensive rhythm we followed so many times before. When I miss my mother these days, now that she is gone, I like to picture us in the car together, going for one more magnificent trip to Bertram Woods.
My family was big on the library. We were very much a reading family, but we were a borrow-a-book-from-the-library family more than a bookshelves-full-of-books family. My parents valued books, but they grew up in the Depression, aware of the quicksilver nature of money, and they learned the hard way that you shouldn’t buy what you could borrow. Because of that frugality, or perhaps independent of it, they also believed that you read a book for the experience of reading it. You didn’t read it in order to have an object that had to be housed and looked after forever, a memento of the purpose for which it was obtained. The reading of the book was a journey. There was no need for souvenirs.
By the time I was born, my parents’ financial circumstances were comfortable, and they learned how to splurge a little, but their Depression-era mentality adhered stubbornly to certain economies, which included not buying books that could be gotten very easily from the library. Our uncrowded bookshelves at home had several sets of encyclopedias (an example of something not convenient to borrow from the library, since you reached for it regularly and urgently) and a random assortment of other books which, for one reason or another, my parents had ended up buying. That included a few mild sex manuals (Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique is the one I remember best, because of course I read it whenever my parents were out of the house). I assume my parents bought the sex books because they would have been embarrassed to present them at the checkout desk of the library. There were also some travel guides, some coffee table books, a few of my father’s law books, and a dozen or so novels that were either gifts or for some reason managed to justify being owned outright.
When I headed to college, one of the many ways I differentiated myself from my parents was that I went wild for owning books. I think buying textbooks was what got me going. All I know is that I lost my appreciation for the slow pace of making your way through a library and for having books on borrowed time. I wanted to have my books around me, forming a totem pole of the narratives I’d visited. As soon as I got my own apartment, I lined it with bookcases and loaded them with hardcovers. I used the college library for research, but otherwise, I turned into a ravenous buyer of books. I couldn’t walk into a bookstore without leaving with something, or several somethings. I loved the fresh alkaline tang of new ink and paper, a smell that never emanated from a broken-in library book. I loved the crack of a newly flexed spine, and the way the brand-new pages almost felt damp, as if they were wet with creation. I sometimes wondered if I was catching up after spending my childhood amid sparsely settled bookcases. But the reason didn’t matter to me. I actually became a little evangelical about book ownership. Sometimes I fantasized about starting a bookstore. If my mother ever mentioned to me that she was on the waiting list for some book at the library, I got annoyed and asked why she didn’t just go buy it.
Once I was done with college, and done with researching term papers in the stacks of the Harold T. and Vivian B. Shapiro Undergraduate Library, I sloughed off the memory of those wondrous childhood trips to the Bertram Woods branch, and began, for the first time in my life, to wonder what libraries were for.
It might have remained that way, and I might have spent the rest of my life thinking about libraries only wistfully, the way I thought wistfully about, say, the amusement park I went to as a kid. Libraries might have become just a bookmark of memory more than an actual place, a way to call up an emotion of a moment that occurred long ago, something that was fused with “mother” and “the past” in my mind. But then libraries came roaring back into my life unexpectedly. In 2011, my husband accepted a job in Los Angeles, so we left New York and headed west. I didn’t know Los Angeles well, but I’d spent time there over the years, visiting cousins who lived in and around the city. When I became a writer, I went to Los Angeles many times to work on magazine pieces and books. On those visits, I had been to and from the beach, and up and down the canyons, and in and out of the valley, and back and forth to the mountains, but I never gave downtown Los Angeles a second thought, assuming it was just a glassy landscape of office buildings that hollowed out by five o’clock every night. I pictured Los Angeles as a radiant doughnut, rimmed by milky ocean and bristling mountains, with a big hole in the middle. I never went to the public library, never thought about the library, although I’m sure I assumed there was a public library, probably a main branch, probably downtown.
My son was in first grade when we moved to California. One of his first assignments in school was to interview someone who worked for the city. I suggested talking to a garbage collector or a police officer, but he said he wanted to interview a librarian. We were so new to town that we had to look up the address of the closest library, which was the Los Angeles Public Library’s Studio City branch. The branch was about a mile away from our house, which happened to be about the same distance that the Bertram Woods branch was from my childhood home.
As my son and I drove to meet the librarian, I was flooded by a sense of absolute familiarity, a gut-level recollection of this journey, of parent and child on their way to the library. I had taken this trip so many times before, but now it was turned on its head, and I was the parent bringing my child on that special trip. We parked, and my son and I walked toward the library, taking it in for the first time. The building was white and modish, with a mint green mushroom cap of a roof. From the outside, it didn’t look anything like the stout brick Bertram Woods branch, but when we stepped in, the thunderbolt of recognition struck me so hard that it made me gasp. Decades had passed and I was three thousand miles away, but I felt like I had been lifted up and whisked back to that time and place, back to the scenario of walking into the library with my mother. Nothing had changed—there was the same soft tsk-tsk-tsk of pencil on paper, and the muffled murmuring from patrons at the tables in the center of the room, and the creak and groan of book carts, and the occasional papery clunk of a book dropped on a desk. The scarred wooden checkout counters, and the librarians’ desks, as big as boats, and the bulletin board with its fluttering, raggedy notices were all the same. The sense of gentle, steady busyness, like water on a rolling boil, was just the same. The books on the shelves, with some subtractions and additions, were certainly the same.
It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries—and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up—not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.
So the spell libraries once cast on me was renewed. Maybe it had never really been extinguished, although I had been away long enough that it was like visiting a country I’d loved but forgotten as my life went galloping by. I knew what it was like to want a book and to buy it, but I had forgotten what it felt like to amble among the library shelves, finding the book I was looking for but also seeing who its neighbors were, noticing their peculiar concordance, and following an idea as it was handed off from one book to the next, like a game of telephone. I might start at Dewey decimal 301.4129781 (Pioneer Women by Joanna L. Stratton) and a few inches later find myself at 306.7662 (Gaydar by Donald F. Reuter) and then 301.45096 (Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama) and finally 301.55 (The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson). On a library bookshelf, thought progresses in a way that is logical but also dumbfounding, mysterious, irresistible.
Not long after my son interviewed the librarian, I happened to meet a man named Ken Brecher who runs the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, the nonprofit organization that champions the city’s libraries and raises money for extra programming and services. Brecher offered to give me a tour of Central Library, so a few days later, I drove downtown to meet him. From the highway, I could see the quiver of dark skyscrapers in the center of the city that surrounded the library. The summer and fall had been rainless. The landscape around me was bright and bleached, blasted, with an almost ashy pallor. Even the palm trees seemed sapped of color, and the reddish rooftops were whitened, as if dusted with sugar.
I felt new here, and the sheer breadth of Los Angeles still astonished me. It seemed like I could drive and drive and the city would just keep unfurling, almost as if it were a map of Los Angeles being unrolled as I drove over it, rather than a real city that started and stopped somewhere specific. In Los Angeles, your eye keeps reaching for an endpoint and never finds it, because it doesn’t exist. The wide-openness of Los Angeles is a little intoxicating, but it can be unnerving, too—it’s the kind of place that doesn’t hold you close, a place where you can picture yourself cartwheeling off into emptiness, a pocket of zero gravity. I’d spent the previous five years living in the Hudson Valley of New York, so I was more used to bumping into a hill or a river at every turn and settling my gaze on some foreground feature—a tree, a house, a cow. For twenty years before that, I’d lived in Manhattan, where the awareness of when you are in or out of the city is as clear as day.
I expected Central Library to look like the main libraries I knew best. New York Public Library and the Cleveland Public Library are serious buildings, with grand entrances and a stern, almost religious aura. By contrast, the Los Angeles Central Library looks like what a child might assemble out of blocks. The building—buff-colored, with black inset windows and a number of small entrances—is a fantasia of right angles and nooks and plateaus and terraces and balconies that step up to a single central pyramid surfaced with colored tiles and topped with a bronze sculpture of an open flame held in a human hand. It manages to look ancient and modern at the same time. As I approached, the simple blocky form of the building resolved into a throng of bas-relief stone figures on every wall. There were Virgil and Leonardo and Plato; bison herds and cantering horses; sunbursts and nautiluses; archers and shepherds and printers and scholars; scrolls and wreaths and waves. Philosophical declarations in English and Latin were carved across the building’s face like an ancient ticker tape. Compared to the mute towers around it, the library seemed more a proclamation than a building.
I circled, reading as I walked. Socrates, cool-eyed and stony-faced, gazed past me. I followed the bustle of visitors to the center of the main floor, and then I continued past the clatter and buzz of the circulation desk and climbed a wide set of stairs that spilled me out into a great rotunda. The rotunda was empty. I stood for a moment, taking it in. The rotunda is one of those rare places that have a kind of sacred atmosphere, full of a quiet so dense and deep that it almost feels underwater. All the rotunda’s features were larger than life, overpowering, jaw-dropping. The walls were covered with huge murals of Native Americans and priests and soldiers and settlers, painted in dusty mauve and blue and gold. The floor was glossy travertine, laid out in a pattern of checkerboard. The ceiling and archways were tiled with squares of red and blue and ocher. In the center of the rotunda hung a massive chandelier—a heavy brass chain dangling a luminous blue glass Earth ringed by the twelve figures of the zodiac.
I crossed the rotunda and walked toward a large sculpture known as the Statue of Civilization—a marble woman with fine features and perfect posture and a trident in her left hand. I was so stirred by the library’s beauty that when Brecher arrived to give me my tour, I was chattering like someone on a successful first date. Brecher is as thin as a pencil and has bright eyes, pure white hair, and a brisk, barking laugh. He began a running commentary about each fixture, each carving, each plaque on the wall. He also told me about his path to the library, which included stints living with a preliterate tribe of indigenous people in the Central Amazon and working for the Sundance Institute. He seemed electrified by everything he told me about the library, and between his electricity and my excitement, we must have made quite a lively pair. We inched along, stopping every few feet to examine another feature of the building, or to eyeball another shelf of books, or to hear about this or that person who had importance to the place. Everything about the library had a story—the architect, the muralist, the person who developed each collection, the head of each department, the scores of people who worked at the library or patronized it over the decades, many now long gone but still somehow present there, lingering in the wings, a durable part of its history.
We finally made our way to the Fiction Department and stopped near the first row of shelves. Brecher took a break from his commentary and reached for one of the books, cracked it open, held it up to his face, and inhaled deeply. I had never seen someone smell a book quite like that before. Brecher inhaled the book a few more times, then clapped it shut and placed it back on the shelf.
“You can still smell the smoke in some of them,” he said, almost to himself. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, so I tried this: “They smell like smoke because the library used to let patrons smoke?”
“No!” Brecher said. “Smoke from the fire!”
“The fire? What fire?”
“The fire,” he said. “The big fire. The one that shut the library down.”
On April 29, 1986, the day the library burned, I was living in New York. While my romance with libraries had not been renewed yet, I cared a lot about books, and I am sure I would have noticed a story about a massive fire in a library, no matter where that library was. The Central Library fire was not a minor matter, not a cigarette smoldering in a trash can that would have gone without mention. It was a huge, furious fire that burned for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees; it was so fierce that almost every firefighter in Los Angeles was called upon to fight it. More than one million books were burned or damaged. I couldn’t imagine how I didn’t know of an event of this magnitude, especially something involving books, even though I was living on the other side of the country when it occurred.
When I got home from touring the library with Brecher, I looked up the New York Times from April 29, 1986. The fire had started midmorning, Pacific time, which would have been early afternoon in New York. By then, the Times would have already published that day’s paper. The front-page stories were the usual fare, including the postponement of mobster John Gotti’s trial; a warning from Senator Bob Dole that the federal budget was in trouble; and a photograph of President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, waving goodbye as they embarked on a trip to Indonesia. On the right side of the front page, over a skinny, single-column story, was the headline SOVIET ANNOUNCES NUCLEAR ACCIDENT AT ELECTRIC PLANT/MISHAP ACKNOWLEDGED AFTER RISING RADIATION LEVELS SPREAD TO SCANDINAVIA. The next day, the headline on the follow-up story grew to panic size, announcing SOVIET, REPORTING ATOM PLANT “DISASTER,” SEEKS HELP ABROAD TO FIGHT REACTOR FIRE with a place line of Moscow, U.S.S.R. There was also a special three-page section that began with NUCLEAR DISASTER: A SPREADING CLOUD AND AN AID APPEAL. By the second day, the fear about the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant triggered what was then the largest single-day point loss in the history of the American stock market.
The burning of Central Library in Los Angeles was finally mentioned in the New York Times on April 30, in a story that appeared on page A14. The story laid out the basic facts, mentioning that twenty-two people were injured in the blaze and that the cause of the fire was unknown. Another brief story provided a few more details on the fire and included interviews with residents of Los Angeles speculating about how it would feel to have the library closed indefinitely. There were no other stories about it in the New York Times that week. The biggest library fire in American history had been upstaged by the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. The books burned while most of us were waiting to see if we were about to witness the end of the world.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Library Book includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Susan Orlean. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Susan Orlean, one of our most esteemed journalists and authors, turns her keen powers of observation and narrative gifts to the overlooked, underreported saga of the 1986 fire that ravaged the Los Angeles Public Library. Part detective story, part history, The Library Book serves as a meditation on and an ode to libraries, librarians, and their role in our communities.
“You can still smell the smoke in some them,” says Ken Brecher, head of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, to launch Orlean headlong into her investigation on the unsolved mystery of the conflagration that destroyed or damaged more than one million books, articles, and resource materials. At the center of the 1987 fire is Harry Peak, a charming aspiring actor, who is accused of arson but never charged. As Orlean charts the life and career of Peak, we see that there is just as much evidence to convict him as there is to exonerate him.
The larger narrative of The Library Book is its chronicle of the Los Angeles Public Library, a history that’s easily extrapolated to libraries nationwide. The library’s role in the community is directly reflective of the city’s growth from western outpost to boomtown to modern metropolis. It’s a history not without its controversies, ranging from the discrimination faced by library pioneer Mary Jones to the eccentricities of library head Charles Lummis to the ongoing debates over such matters as public funding and homelessness.
Readers and book lovers also get an intimate journal of the day-to-day lives of librarians, a rare look into the unsung and sometimes thankless world of these public servants. The days of simply cataloging books is long gone for librarians, whose roles now encompass everything from information technology to the homelessness crisis. Orlean brings the librarians of the LAPL to life, dutifully showing that the library, or any library, is a shared, inclusive community space that can be whatever its patrons need it be.
1. What has your relationship with libraries been throughout your life? Can you share some library memories from childhood to adulthood?
2. Were you at all familiar with the Los Angeles library fire? Or any library fire?
3. How would you describe the fire’s impact on the community? How about the community’s rebuilding efforts?
4. In chapter 5, Orlean writes that books “take on a kind of human vitality.” What role do books play in your life and home, and do you anthropomorphize them? Have you ever wrestled with the idea of giving books away or otherwise disowning them?
5. What is your impression of John Szabo? How does his career inform and shape your understanding of what librarians do?
6. Libraries today are more than just a building filled with books. How has your local branch evolved? Are you able to chart these changes and gauge their success within the community?
7. The Library Book confronts the issue of street people patronizing the library. Is this an issue in your hometown? How do you feel about the L.A. library’s involvement, handling of the issue, and the notion of inclusion?
8. Andrew Carnegie is perhaps the most famous supporter and benefactor of libraries. Can you name a modern equivalent who is using his or her largesse to underwrite public works? Is it more important for the public sector to have big benefactors or overall community support?
9. What was your initial impression of Harry Peak? Did it change throughout the investigation?
10. What was your reaction to the Mary Jones and Charles Lummis saga? Can you cite any similar examples from history or the present?
11. Each of the head librarians discussed in The Library Book brought certain qualities to the position. What ideas and initiatives did you like? Did you disagree with any?
12. The Library Book chronicles the history of the Los Angeles Public Library from its origins to the present day. How were the library’s ups and downs reflective of the city’s ups and down? Are libraries a fair barometer to judge the mood of a city or town?
13. Chapter 30 discusses a range of initiatives undertaken by international libraries and librarians. Do you have a favorite example that you would like to see replicated at your local library?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Schedule a time for your group to visit a local library and meet with the staff to discuss the book, the role of librarians, and how the community can stay engaged.
2. Each chapter begins with some thematically-linked books. Have each group member pick a chapter, read or research the books in the chapter openers, and then briefly present how those books relate to chapter.
3. Have each member present an idea for the local library’s programming. Narrow the list to one or two of the best ideas and formally present it to your library head with an action plan for implementation.
A Conversation with Susan Orlean
How did The Library Book evolve as you researched and wrote it? Is it a different book now than the one you set out to write?
I was drawn to the story on several levels. I was curious to explore the way libraries function and what they mean in our lives; I was interested in the history and story of the Los Angeles library specifically; and I was fascinated by the story of the fire. I always knew this book would have several different threads woven together, and that is exactly how it turned out.
Does the library and its staff have a civic duty?
Technically, yes—they are civil servants, and they’re pledged to work with the public and make the resources of the library available to them. But most of them have a sense of civic responsibility that far exceeds that; they feel a mission to serve the public and to be the caretakers of information. It’s a role the staff takes very seriously.
What was the reaction of Harry’s family when they learned you were writing about him? Has there been or do you anticipate any feedback from them as the book becomes available?
Harry’s family was enthusiastic when we met. They felt that Harry’s reputation had been ruined by his association with the fire, and they believed that I would tell his story and thus clear his name. My plan was somewhat different: I wanted to know his story and understand how he had gotten tangled up in the fire. I didn’t set out to prove his innocence. I made every effort to be objective and thorough, but my goal wasn’t to exonerate Harry, so his family might be disappointed that I didn’t do that.
The section of the book where you shadow John Szabo gives true scope and possibilities to the role of a head librarian. Did you have any idea how diverse his portfolio of duties and projects was when you started shadowing him?
I had no idea what it would be like to run a large urban library system, and I’m sure I imagined it would entail looking through a lot of book catalogs and other book-related tasks. But very quickly I realized how different the job is. For instance, just realizing that Szabo is responsible for seventy-three significant city buildings was a shock. He probably spends more time dealing with issues related to the simple functioning of those buildings than ordering books. There is an enormous amount of management involved. Still, Szabo is able to stay very involved in the more intellectual aspects of his job. He does a remarkable job balancing the various demands on his time and attention.
Was there a particular era of the LAPL that you enjoyed researching?
I became enchanted with Charles Lummis. He was such a remarkable man, such a singular figure, and his short time in the library was certainly eventful! That period—the turn of the century—was also a moment when Los Angeles was growing into itself, so it was a thrilling time to learn about.
Technology was once a threat to libraries. Now it’s an essential feature. How does technology complement a library?
Technology is an extraordinary asset for organization, which is essential to the function of a library. The electronic card catalog alone has been transformative. Technology has also allowed us to order books from the comfort of our home; to borrow e-books and movies; to use research tools offered by the library. It’s added a whole new dimension to what the library is. And on the most basic level, the library is also the most accessible free Internet, so the library has become the portal to the online world available to anyone and everyone.
The role of a librarian these days, especially in a metropolitan area, is far more than cataloging books. Was it surprising to learn and report on some of the day-to-day situations they face?
I was amazed and impressed by how librarians have adapted to their new roles, which span social service and technology as well as books. It’s a very different job from what it was in the past, and it’s begun to attract a different sort of librarian who is aware that he or she will be face-to-face with every kind of person in the city, as well as having to master all the new technology that has become part of the library.
What is the future of the local library and how do you think its role in the community will change? Should we change our fundamental understanding of it as a place that stores books for borrowing?
I’m optimistic—very optimistic!—about the future of the local library. Now that we have come to view them as a new kind of community center/knowledge hub, they are poised to become even more important and appreciated than they’ve ever been. Books will always be important to what a library is, but I love the image of the library as a pulsing intellectual and social center of a community, where we come to share stories and learn and explore, in whatever way we can imagine.
You maintain a vibrant Twitter presence. How did you come to embrace that medium?
I joined Twitter early on, and somehow the format just appealed to me. I was living in a fairly rural place at the time, and I was spending a lot of time alone, so Twitter became my “water cooler”—that is, it became the place where I’d go to chat and listen to other people, see what was going on, catch up on news and gossip. It was a perfect respite from being out in rural New York, alone with my computer. I still love it!
What do you think will be most exciting for you to discuss about this book at events, signings, and in the media?
I love hearing other people’s memories of visiting the library when they were young, and how it influenced them so much as adults. I love hearing how much people love libraries. It gives me great hope for the future of humankind.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Just loved it.
It's about more than the library fire. It's about how libraries evolved into the social centers they are today, and how great librarians both adapted to the times they lived in and innovated to provide communities the books they needed and so much more. A fascinating book packed with interesting people, tid-bits, remembrances, and history. I always loved the local library but this book makes me appreciate it all the more.
She paints such a romantic view of libraries and their history, every time I started reading, I wanted to go get a library card :)
From the moment I picked up the book, I felt an intensely personal connection to it. Opening up the back of the book and reaching for that almost real checkout card immediately transported me back to the Base Library where as a child, I spent countless hours searching for books that I could take home and devour. But as I read the book, the connection even became more personal as it the Downtown Library in LA that I first visited when I moved to Los Angeles from Hawaii back in 1985. I worked downtown so it was the most convenient library to visit which I often did during my lunch hours. While I happened to be out of town the day the fire occurred, I can still remember the aftermath and the lingering smell of smoke. Memories came flooding back. While the story of the fire certainly was interesting, what I found more interesting is the story about the libraries themselves. What an interesting history they have and hopefully will continue to have. I can’t imagine a world without libraries and the wonderful worlds they can transport us to through the books.
Not only is this the story of the 1968 Los Angeles Library fire, it is also the story of the author's love affair with libraries along with the history of the LA Public Libraries. What isn't there to like? I must admit to doing a little happy dance when I received a copy of this from Simon & Schuster via Netgalley. As a lifelong lover of the library, I just had a feeling this was right up my alley. Not only was this entertaining, it was filled with fascinating research pertaining to the fire and it's aftermath. A true delight from beginning to end. Lucky me.
For all lovers of libraries and books! Although a great deal of this book is about the fire that burned the Central Library of Los Angeles in April of 1986, destroying almost half a million books, and about the young man who many thought started the fire, it is really an ode to books and libraries in general. Just about every aspect is covered, from the history of libraries and books to their challenging future. I adored every minute spent with this book and thank the publisher for granting me the privilege of reading an arc via Net Galley for my honest review
I just have to say “wow!” I never expected this book to be packed with so much information. At times, it almost felt overwhelming. Centered around the 1986 Los Angeles library fire which burned for more than 7 hours and consumed 400,000 books, this book is not just about that fire. This book is about books, fires, libraries, reading, patrons, individuals, writing, it’s about the love of reading. If any of these subjects’ interest you, then this title should be on your list, but I warn you, this book is not one to be read quickly. You could do what I did and listen to this book and take breaks digesting what the author read to you, because it’s a lot! I found the fire to be interesting as the circumstances surrounding it, were unique. Being such a big structure, filled with flammable materials, I figured it would be a ball of flames quickly but there were other factors to take into account. As the author takes off from this subject, she leads me into a multitude of many other subjects, before coming back to the fire many times. I got to thinking that this book would be a great one to listen to and read at the same time. I would have loved to make reference to some of the other subjects that she branched off on but that was hard to do while just listening to her. I feel that the author did some research before launching into her writing because of the statistical and elaborate facts that she presented in her book. The author also gave some interesting details about specific individual books in her chapters which sounded like books that I might enjoy and I should look up in the future. As the author talked about the fire, she talked about how books burn, the investigation on how it started, how they tried to stop the fire, who was affected, the damage, the rebuilding, and the years since. When I first started listening to this audio, I couldn’t believe this book could be this long but as I continued listening, I wondered how she was going to finally wrap things up in the end. There were a few times, I thought the book got a bit long and I had to take a break. I think it was “information overload” on my part. I didn’t really like how the author included random books at the beginning of each chapter. I think if I had been reading the book, I could have skipped over this but listening to the audio, I couldn’t. Listening to call numbers and titles of books for no particular reason just broke up the mood for the story. Overall, it’s a great book that’s based on a true event. The author takes us readers, on an incredible journey, enlightening us with fascinating facts and stories centered around a building, that many of us like to call our second home. 4.5 stars
Was reluctant to start this book for book club but once into it was captured by the many stories the author wove .
I love libraries, so I did appreciate this book -- part detective story and part library history. The importance of libraries and their values around the world is mentioned, as well as the many wars that have destroyed books, some of them on purpose -- like "Five Incantations" by the Nazis that burned Jewish books in 1933. Orlean has a lifelong love affair of libraries, and this is readily apparent in the book. But there was one factual error: The L.A. library burned on April 29, 1986 -- yet in the book jacket it states: "On the morning of April 28, 1986, a fire alarm sounded..." This minor error should have been caught.
couldn't put it down.
Every lover of books will be enraptured by Orlean’s paean to libraries, a mystery at heart as it unravels the fire that burned L.A.’s Public Library in 1986. It’s a love letter, a crime story, a history, and an absorbing narrative rolled into one. A triumph! 5 of 5 stars Thanks to the author, publisher and NetGalley for the ARC. Opinions are mine. Pub Date 16 Oct 2018. TheLibraryBook #NetGalley
This book was just the most fun!! If you love books and libraries and mysteries, you will love this book. Susan Orlean uses the background of the 1986 fire that devastated the Los Angeles Public Library, to share a story about the love of books and libraries. I just can't say enough about how great this book is. Susan Orlean is an award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author, so she knows her way around words. She weaves amazing details into her story, as well as introducing readers to a whole list of quirky and lovable characters. Seriously, if you have any amount of love for books and/or libraries, you will not want to put this book down.
you're a firefighter or a pyromaniac. I'm only at page 32, and I can't stand it. Almost no dialogue, only page after page of how a fire destroys a library and everything in it. I read 3 or 4 books a week, and this will be one of the rare few I won't finish unless I get desparate for something to read.
I am a retired librarian. I took my Masters in Library Science at the University of Southern California in 1971, back when U. S. C. offered such a degree. After that I worked at a variety of library situations, public, private, medical, military, etc., in D. C., San Francisco, L. A. and elsewhere around the world. I spent two years developing school libraries in Malaysia with the Peace Corps and have worked in Army libraries in Panama, Europe and Korea. But my first library job, not counting the student library clerk gig at junior college in Compton, California, was at the Central Library Children's Room of L. A. P. L. This was some 15 years before the fire. I was working in Texas then and would have dearly loved to have taken part in the salvage efforts. My memories of L. A. P. L. were mixed, of course, good and bad, as always is the case of any workplace as complicated as a library. By attempting to take on the task of writing about the history of the L. A. library system Ms. Orlean has tried to lift too great a load. This book could never be anything other than cursory. She has made an error or two and no matter how much love she may have for her topic, she will always be an outsider. Despite its failings, this book is a highly enjoyable read and does actually give the outsider a unique insight into a world that is, despite being an integral part of a community, always regarded by the public as separate, almost eerie.
Interesting facts about the history of the LA Library. However, at times this book gets bogged down in facts and history and drags a bit, and at times the story jumps around a bit. However, there were some really interesting points made about libraries in general and the history of libraries nationwide. The story of the actual arson at first is dealt with in-depth and then it just peters out. The description of the fire itself and its devastation was quite vivid.
Awful. I bought the audio and wish I would have passed on it. Not only did it drag on and on but the author NEVER should have read it. It could have been written in short story and been far better. She was very redundant.
This book seemed to be an intriguing suspense however; their was very little revealed about searching and finding the arsonist. The book was more like an informational about the history of the LA library and the people who worked for the library. If you like documentaries this is your book.
What a fascinating story this is! I had only a little idea about the fire and what happened afterwards but this book takes you back and really explores not just the tragedy, but the community spirit which flourished. I think Susan has done a really good job with her research and homage to this tragedy and really brought out the human side to what is a remarkable story. I admit I teared up when thinking of all those poor books but even more so at the risk that the firemen and women would have been under. This story needed a book of its own and this is a real homage to books, libraries and bookshops but more importantly - the love of books.
The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s love letter to libraries and librarians. Utterly fascinating, it reads like a blend of memoir and investigative reportage. The story arc is rooted in finding out who was responsible for Los Angeles Central Library’s devastating 1986 fire. And includes the many years of emotional impact and physical process of rebuilding the library. Along the book’s journey we learn so much about the personal lives of those who help nurture libraries that are, themselves, living and breathing institutions. Particularly endearing is Orlean’s reflection of her childhood experiences with libraries and how they informed the lifelong relationship with her mother. The book’s ending brought me to tears.
Incredible look at the community we call the library. From the first time I walked into the East Nashville Public Library with my dad, I have been in love with libraries. He had already presented me with books that captured my heart. The daughter of a printer-publisher had no chance when it came to printed matter. Susan Orlean is another lover of libraries and books, and Orlean’s book, The Library Book, caught my eye quickly. Orlean is a new author to me, and I can’t believe I’m putting that in writing. I should have read more of her work. I understand from one Amazon review I read that “[h]er only peer for nonfiction is John McPhee.” If you haven’t read McPhee and you enjoy nonfiction, you should check out his books and essays. Back to my review. As you’ve learned from the synopsis, The Library Book centers around a fire that consumed the Los Angeles Public Library (“LAPL”) and many of its treasures on April 29, 1986. Investigations into the fire and its cause frustrated police and fire agencies, and investigators focused on one interesting and somewhat intriguing character, Harry Peak. Rather than write about a building, furniture, equipment, books, maps, and other elements of the library, Orlean shares with her readers a living, breathing, and in the midst of the horrific fire, dying soul. She shows us the tiny elements in the life of the library that richly personify it–the staff, the people who come and go on any given day, the children, the homeless, the hungry, the LGBTQ community, the persons who served as head librarian. We, her readers, come to know the library as a standing affirmation of its service to the community. Orlean accomplishes her personification of LAPL through the use of its history from beginning to eventual demise and rebuilding, including the enormous and intricate task of bringing back to their shelves over 700,000 books damaged by smoke and water that day in 1986. LAPL’s history was enriched by meeting those who served as head librarian, including the disputes over whether or not women were fit and capable of holding that position. Some of the chapters on this subject are comical at times in light of today’s continued and difficult upward movement of women into the management level positions in corporate and governmental America. Many have commented that they felt more attention should have been given to the fire rather than historical facts and materials. In my personal opinion, I believe Orlean structured The Library Book as she did because it was the best way to show the reader how important every detail of the LAPL was on the morning of April 29, 1986. In that way, Orlean could affirm the need to work as unceasingly and hard as the staff and others did to bring it back to flourishing life. LAPL was an essential part of the area of Los Angeles in which it resided. To allow it to simply disappear or worse come back as only half of what it had been would have been a blemish on the library’s history and family and a profound statement of how unimportant the library was to its patrons. My Recommendation: If you are a lover of books and libraries, you will love The Library Book for all the reasons I’ve shared with you and perhaps some you can share in your own review. Orleans writing is beautiful in many respects and intelligent and well-researched. As a writer, I have found in Orleans’ writing many lessons upon which I will draw as I continue moving ahead.
Librarians, booksellers and avid readers will LOVE The Library Book by Susan Orlean. With well-researched detail, Ms. Orlean uses the 1986 L.A. Public Library fire as a framework for what I found to be a love story to libraries. Her emotional connection using memories of her mother adds a personal touch to the often technical descriptions of library science, fire regulations and legal precedents. I found her historical references just as compelling as her vision of the future relevance of libraries. The characters spanning hundreds of years are in the category of "you can't make this stuff up"! And in the midst of the sad tale of destruction and loss, there is inspiration. I sincerely hope that this book shines a light on the importance of libraries in our communities, perhaps now more than ever.
This book is billed as true crime, and while it does cover the mysterious fire (arson? maybe) in the LA Central Library in 1986, it reads more as a love letter to libraries. As a library lover, I found the glimpse into the history and inner workings of the LA Public Library system fascinating. Orlean is a fantastic writer, who blends the story of the fire with the history and future of the library seamlessly. This is well worth a read if you have any interest in libraries at all. Thank you to NetGalley for the review copy of the book.
Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for an ARC of this book! I've read several non-fiction books lately, and as much as I am interested in the subject matter, I always find myself giving them 3 stars or sometimes less. And I was kind of starting to feel like that's just what non-fiction books are for me, informative, I learn a lot, at the end I'm glad I read them, but I didn't really feel that pull to keep reading like a fiction book. Well Susan Orlean has officially changed my mind. Apparently my problem is not with non-fiction books but that I just haven't been reading very well-written ones. This read like a novel and even though it was never anything exciting or action-packed, I kept wanting to read and read and read. I really learned a lot from this book. My favorite parts were about the fire that happened at the Los Angeles Central library in the 80s, as well as the investigation of Harry Peak and whether or not he set the fire, but I also enjoyed reading about the history of this particular library and about libraries in general. It made me want to go thank a librarian and also apply for a job as a librarian. I really have nothing negative to say. The book was both informative and engaging the entire time, as I said Susan Orlean is an incredible author to take something as seemingly mundane as the history of a library and make it an unputdownable book. I'd definitely be interested in checking out some of her other books in the future.