Susan Orlean examines every aspect of the library in this entertaining and humane book.
On April 29, 1986, a terrible fire broke out at the Los Angeles Public Library. It caused great devastation. Some 400,000 books were destroyed; another 700,000 experienced smoke or water damage. It took the fire department seven hours to put out the flames. The rebuilding took years and cost millions of dollars.
Journalist and writer Susan Orlean stumbled across these facts only recently, amazed that the fire wasn’t better known. A reason could be that the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster occurred a few days before the library fire, eclipsing it in newsworthiness.
How did the fire start? To this day it remains a mystery. The prime suspect was an attractive young man, Harry Peak, a fantasist and compulsive liar who dreamed of being an actor. He was seen at the library on the day of the fire, and he even told friends he had lit it, but then chopped and changed his story so much it was impossible to know what to believe. He was imprisoned for three days, but then the charges were dropped as it was felt the case against him wouldn’t stand up in court.
The eccentric Harry Peak is just one character among many in this multi-faceted, kaleidoscope-like book that looks at the history, development and workings of the Los Angeles Library. Orlean also chronicles the broader story of the library, from its early American pioneers (there were many eccentrics and true originals in this class) to today, where the library incorporates the latest in technology and sometimes struggles to remain an institution that is open to all, including the city’s many homeless seeking warmth and comfort.
The Library Book is a deeply satisfying book, explaining in entertaining language every aspect of how a big, modern library works. It’s also a story with heart and soul, the library being a vital and humane place, somewhere to find refuge from a world of ceaseless troubles. It’s also a book that pays due homage to the work of the librarians, those precursors to the Google search engine, ever ready to answer questions.
The Library Book, by Susan Orlean. Atlantic $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba