This post first appeared on Puddletown Reviews. However, the content and Susan Orlean’s writing makes for a beautiful essay. I felt it should be posted here as a new resource for writers of nonfiction.
* * *
All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a
library’s simple unspoken promise:
Here is my story, please listen; here I am, please tell me your story.
Susan Orlean, hailed as a “national treasure” by The Washington Post and the acclaimed bestselling author of Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief, reopens the unsolved mystery of the most catastrophic library fire in American history, and delivers a dazzling love letter to a beloved institution—our libraries.
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 false alarm. As one fireman recounted later, “Once that first stack got going, it was Goodbye, Charlie.” The fire was disastrous: It reached 2,000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Investigators descended on the scene, but over thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?
Weaving her life-long love of books and reading with the fascinating history of libraries and the sometimes-eccentric characters who run them, award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean presents a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling story as only she can. With her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, she investigates the legendary Los Angeles Public Library fire to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives. To truly understand what happens behind the stacks, Orlean visits the different departments of the LAPL, encountering an engaging cast of employees and patrons and experiencing alongside them the victories and struggles they face in today’s climate. She also delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from a metropolitan charitable initiative to a cornerstone of national identity. She reflects on her childhood experiences in libraries; studies arson and the long history of library fires; attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; and she re-examines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the library over thirty years ago. Along the way, she reveals how these buildings provide much more than just books—and that they are needed now more than ever.
Filled with heart, passion, and unforgettable characters, The Library Book is classic Susan Orlean, and an homage to a beloved institution that remains a vital part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country and culture.
Disclosure: My thanks to NetGalley and Simon Schuster for providing an ARC of The Library Book for my reading and reviewing. Opinions expressed here are mine.
Where to Buy:
Review of The Library Book
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. 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. At the heart were books, but at its soul were staff, people who come and go, children, homeless, hungry, LGBTQ community. And most important, 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. LAPL’s restoration included the enormous and intricate task of bringing back to their shelves over 700,000 books damaged by smoke and water.
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 to show the reader the importance of LAPL. In this way, Orlean could affirm the need to work unceasingly as staff and others did to bring it back to life. LAPL was an essential part of the area of Los Angeles in which it resided. To allow it to simply disappear or, worse yet, come back as only half of what it had been would have been a blemish on the library’s history and family. It would have left 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.
Meet Susan Orlean
I’m the product of a happy and uneventful childhood in the suburbs of Cleveland, followed by a happy and pretty eventful four years as a student at University of Michigan. From there, I wandered to the West Coast, landing in Portland, Oregon, where I managed (somehow) to get a job as a writer. This had been my dream, of course, but I had no experience and no credentials. What I did have, in spades, was an abiding passion for storytelling and sentence-making. I fell in love with the experience of writing, and I’ve never stopped. From Portland, I moved to Boston, where I wrote for the Phoenix and the Globe, and then to New York, where I began writing for magazines, and, in 1987, published my first piece in The New Yorker. I’ve been a staff writer there since 1992.