The Library Book (Paperback)

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This review is from the New York Times and written by Jennifer Szalai:

When writing about the books of Susan Orlean, it’s hard not to feel like the neurotic Charlie Kaufman character in the film “Adaptation,” sweating in front of his typewriter as he tries to work on a screen adaptation of Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief.” He worries that her book is too sprawling and bountiful to cram into a contrived Hollywood plot, and he ends up just thinking about the banana nut muffin he wants to eat. Orlean’s work in general has that elusive quality to it: exquisitely written, consistently entertaining and irreducible to anything so obvious and pedestrian as a theme.
Even Orlean herself, a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, admits to feeling overwhelmed by her idiosyncratic vision; her newest volume, “The Library Book,” almost didn’t happen. “I had decided I was done with writing books,” she writes. “Working on them felt like a slow-motion wrestling match.” But after moving to Los Angeles seven years ago, around the time her book about Rin Tin Tin was published, she learned that the city’s Central Library had suffered a catastrophic fire in 1986. The discovery nudged her into the ring again.
“The Library Book” is about the fire and the mystery of how it started — but in some ways that’s the least of it. It’s also a history of libraries, and of a particular library, as well as the personal story of Orlean and her mother, who was losing her memory to dementia while Orlean was retrieving her own memories by writing this book. Orlean recalls a library-centric childhood in suburban Cleveland, when her mother would let her wander the stacks on her own. “Those visits were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived,” she writes. “In the library I could have anything I wanted.”
That sense of possibility animates her new book, which is a loving tribute not just to a place or an institution but to an idea. “The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity,” Orlean writes. “It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace.” That turn at the end of the sentence is pure Orlean; even when contemplating something as big and abstract as “publicness,” her sensibility veers toward the immediacy of the human touch.
Her depiction of the Central Library fire on April 29, 1986, is so rich with specifics that it’s like a blast of heat erupting from the page. Books “burst like popcorn,” while melting microfilm smelled like syrup. The firefighters’ hoses were too swollen with water to bend around the narrow staircases. It took more than seven hours and 3 million gallons of water to extinguish the flames. Four hundred thousand books were incinerated; another 700,000 were damaged by smoke or water or both.
Orlean uses the fire and the investigation that ensued as a delicate trellis for “The Library Book.” She recounts the life of Harry Peak, a wannabe actor and compulsive fabulist who was arrested on suspicion of starting the fire but never charged. Peak, who died in 1993, wasn’t much of a library patron himself; an ex-boyfriend couldn’t recall ever seeing him read a book.
But since this is Orlean, the trellis ends up being merely a suggestion. The stories outgrow their frame and proliferate. More substantive than the Peak drama is the history of the Los Angeles library system, which was initially viewed as an elite enclave rather than an essential public resource.
A pivotal and polarizing figure was the eccentric journalist Charles Lummis, who held the title of City Librarian in the early 20th century, pulling off the neat trick of making the library “more democratic and yet more sophisticated” at once. Lummis was the kind of brilliant obsessive who was extremely confident in his own genius but “had no instinct for self-preservation,” Orlean writes. He reveled in a swashbuckling censoriousness, implementing what he called a “Literary Pure Food Act,” stamping a skull and crossbones onto the frontispiece of pseudoscience books he deemed so iffy that they were dangerous. He proudly described himself in a letter as a “Two-fisted He-Person” who seized “that Sissy Library and made it, within two years, an Institution of Character, a He-Library.”
The Los Angeles Public Library has changed a great deal since Lummis’s time. It’s a transformation that Orlean charts with a combination of concern and wonder. Ever since the 1960s, as psychiatric hospitals discharged more patients and social services budgets shriveled, libraries have become one of the few places where the homeless can go. The library now acts as a “de facto community center,” laboring under the strain of growing responsibilities and becoming even more indispensable.
The ’60s were also the years when the Central Library, erected in the ’20s, began to show its age. Some of the murals were covered in so much grime that it would eventually protect them in the fire, “like a Teflon shield.” The electrical wiring couldn’t safely power anything stronger than a 40-watt bulb.
The people Orlean talks to — librarians, social workers, security guards — all seem to be heroically dedicated to their mission, trying to help the library adapt to a changing culture while they’re also expected to do more with less. She includes a few dutiful sections near the end about technology and philanthropy, reciting some talking points from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but you get the sense that Orlean doesn’t feel entirely at home with the requisite tech platitudes (“the worldwide portal to the future”) or the earnest belief in smooth efficiency.
After all, Orlean is drawn to inefficiency, to friction; she gets excited when she encounters people whose indelible singularities don’t quite add up. As much as she tries to work her way in this book toward a Very Important Point on Why Libraries Matter, she ends up getting distracted by someone like the saxophone-playing security guard whose “real passion” is juggling and is currently reading a biography of Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
This isn’t a knock on Orlean’s method — far from it. What makes “The Library Book” so enjoyable is the sense of discovery that propels it, the buoyancy when Orlean is surprised or moved by what she finds. In Senegal, she writes, “the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned.” But that’s only if one’s shelves of memories stay private, locked to the outside. Orlean clearly has other plans for hers. “If you can take something from that internal collection and share it,” she writes, “it takes on a life of its own.”

November 2018 Indie Next List

“There is no one better at investigating the fascinating stories hiding in plain sight than Susan Orlean. The vivid descriptions of the fire that engulfed the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986 are burnished by the meticulous research she did on the history of libraries and on the shocking event that resulted in the destruction and damage of over one million books. The mystery of who would start such a fire is woven between stories of eccentric librarians and the transformation of Los Angeles in the 20th century. From memories of the blissful hours spent in the library of her youth to the historical significance of these repositories of our past, Orlean has crafted a love letter to the importance of the written word and those who devote their lives to its preservation.”
— Luisa Smith, Book Passage, Corte Madera, CA


Susan Orlean’s bestseller and New York Times Notable Book is “a sheer delight…as rich in insight and as varied as the treasures contained on the shelves in any local library” (USA TODAY)—a dazzling love letter to a beloved institution and an investigation into one of its greatest mysteries. “Everybody who loves books should check out The Library Book” (The Washington Post).

On the morning of April 28, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. The fire was disastrous: it reached two thousand 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 “delightful…reflection on the past, present, and future of libraries in America” (New York magazine) that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.

In the “exquisitely written, consistently entertaining” (The New York Times) 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; brings each department of the library to vivid life; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.

“A book lover’s dream…an ambitiously researched, elegantly written book that serves as a portal into a place of history, drama, culture, and stories” (Star Tribune, Minneapolis), Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks 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.

About the Author

Susan Orlean has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. She is the author of seven books, including Rin Tin Tin, Saturday Night, and The Orchid Thief, which was made into the Academy Award–winning film Adaptation. She lives with her family and her animals in Los Angeles and may be reached at and

Praise For…

“Moving . . . A constant pleasure to read . . . Everybody who loves books should check out The Library Book. . . . Orlean, a longtime New Yorker writer, has been captivating us with human stories for decades, and her latest book is a wide-ranging, deeply personal, and terrifically engaging investigation of humanity’s bulwark against oblivion: the library. . . . As a narrator, Orlean moves like fire herself, with a pyrotechnic style that smolders for a time over some ancient bibliographic tragedy, leaps to the latest technique in book restoration, and then illuminates the story of a wildly eccentric librarian. Along the way, we learn how libraries have evolved, responded to depressions and wars, and generally thrived despite a constant struggle for funds. Over the holidays, every booklover in America is going to give or get this book. . . . You can’t help but finish The Library Book and feel grateful that these marvelous places belong to us all.”
—Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“A sheer delight. . . . Orlean has created a book as rich in insight and as varied as the treasures contained on the shelves in any local library.”
—Chris Woodyard, USA Today

“Exquisitely written, consistently entertaining . . . A loving tribute not just to a place or an institution but to an idea . . . What makes The Library Book so enjoyable is the sense of discovery that propels it, the buoyancy when Orlean is surprised or moved by what she finds. . . . Her depiction of the Central Library fire on April 29, 1986, is so rich with specifics that it’s like a blast of heat erupting from the page. . . . The Library Book is about the fire and the mystery of how it started—but in some ways that’s the least of it. It’s also a history of libraries, and of a particular library, as well as the personal story of Orlean and her mother, who was losing her memory to dementia while Orlean was retrieving her own memories by writing this book.”
—Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

“Captivating . . . A delightful love letter to public libraries . . . In telling the story of this one library, Orlean reminds readers of the spirit of them all, their mission to welcome and equalize and inform, the wonderful depths and potential that they—and maybe all of us, as well—contain. . . . In other hands the book would have been a notebook dump, packed with random facts that weren’t germane but felt too hard-won or remarkable to omit. Orlean’s lapidary skills include both unearthing the data and carving a storyline out of the sprawl, piling up such copious and relevant details that I wondered how many mountains of research she discarded for each page of jewels.”
—Rebekah Denn, Christian Science Monitor

“A flitting and meandering masterpiece . . . Compelling and undeniably riveting . . . This is a joyful book, and among its many pleasures is the reader’s ability to palpate the author’s thrill as she zooms down from stratospheric viewings of history, to viscerally detailed observations of events and people, and finally to the kind of irresistibly offbeat facts that create an equally irresistible portrait of the author herself.”
—J. C. Hallman, San Francisco Chronicle

“Vivid . . . Compelling . . . Ms. Orlean interweaves a memoir of her life in books, a whodunit, a history of Los Angeles, and a meditation on the rise and fall and rise of civic life in the United States. . . . By turns taut and sinuous, intimate and epic, Ms. Orlean’s account evokes the rhythms of a life spent in libraries . . . bringing to life a place and an institution that represents the very best of America: capacious, chaotic, tolerant and even hopeful, with faith in mobility of every kind, even, or perhaps especially, in the face of adversity.”
—Jane Kamenski, The Wall Street Journal

“A lovely book . . . Susan Orlean has once again found rich material where no one else has bothered to look for it. . . . Once again, she’s demonstrated that the feelings of a writer, if that writer is sufficiently talented and her feelings sufficiently strong, can supply her own drama. You really never know how seriously interesting a subject might be until such a person takes a serious interest in it.”
—Michael Lewis, New York Times Book Review

“A book lover’s dream . . . This is an ambitiously researched, elegantly written book that serves as a portal into a place of history, drama, culture, and stories.”
—Jeffrey Ann Goudie, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“When Susan Orlean fishes for a story, she reels in a hidden world. And so the latest delightful trawl from the author of Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief starts with the tale of the 1986 fire that damaged or destroyed 700,000 books in the Los Angeles Central Library. But The Library Book pans out quickly to the fractious, eccentric history of the institution and then, almost inevitably, a reflection on the past, present, and future of libraries in America. Orlean follows the narrative in all directions, juxtaposing the hunt for the library arsonist—possibly a frustrated actor—with a philosophical treatise on why and how libraries became the closest thing many of us experience to a town hall.”
—Hillary Kelly, New York Magazine

“Like an amble through the rooms and the stacks of a library, where something unexpected and interesting can be discovered on any page.”
—Scott Simon, NPR’s Weekend Edition

“Mesmerizing . . . A riveting mix of true crime, history, biography, and immersion journalism. . . . Probing, prismatic, witty, dramatic, and deeply appreciative, Orlean’s chronicle celebrates libraries as sanctuaries, community centers, and open universities run by people of commitment, compassion, creativity, and resilience.”
Booklist (starred review)

“Engaging . . . Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Of course, I will always read anything that Susan Orlean writes—and I would encourage you to do the same, regardless of the topic, because she’s always brilliant. But The Library Book is a particularly beautiful and soul-expanding book—even by Orleanean standards. You’re going to hear a lot about how important this story is, for shining a spotlight on libraries and the heroic people who run them. That’s all true, but there’s an even better reason to read it—because it will keep you spellbound from first page to last. Don’t miss out on this one, people!" —Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love and Big Magic

“This is a book only Susan Orlean could have written. Somehow she manages to transform the story of a library fire into the story of literacy, civil service, municipal infighting and vision, public spaces in an era of increasingly privatization and social isolation, the transformation of Los Angeles from small provincial hamlet to innovative collossus and model of civic engagement—and the central role libraries have always and will always play in the life and health of a bustling democracy. Beyond all that, like any good library, it’s bursting with incredible tales and characters. There could be no better book for the bookish.”
—Dave Eggers, author of The Circle and The Monk of Mokha

“Susan Orlean has long been one of our finest storytellers, and she proves it again with The Library Book. A beautifully written and richly reported account, it sheds new light on a thirty-year-old mystery—and, what’s more, offers a moving tribute to the invaluableness of libraries.”
—David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z

“After reading Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, I’m quite sure I’ll never look at libraries, or librarians, the same way again. This is classic Orlean—an exploration of a devastating fire becomes a journey through a world of infinite richness, populated with unexpected characters doing unexpected things, with unexpected passion.”
—Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts, and Dead Wake

Product Details
ISBN: 9781476740195
ISBN-10: 1476740194
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: October 1st, 2019
Pages: 336
Language: English


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