If you’re a library lover, you will most definitely want to get your hands on Susan Orlean’s new release, The Library Book, available today from Simon & Schuster.
Reading this book is a delight. It hits many pleasure points: books, libraries, history, criminal investigation, architecture, and cultural trends, to name a few.
The fire at the main Los Angeles Public Library in 1986 provides the scaffolding for this story, but the foundation for it is Orlean’s own love for and experience with libraries. In between are dozens of fascinating facts about the fire and LA (you’ll learn how the fish industry helped save 700,000 books) and stories about librarian movers and shakers of LA (such as Mary Foy, Mary Jones, Charles Fletcher Lummis, and Althea Warren). There are surprising details, like how the movie studios used to be among the biggest thieves of library books and that the first library building in LA had an outdoor arena where weekly slave-auctions were held.
If you were old enough to be aware of the news in 1986 and don’t recall hearing about the LA library fire, don’t feel bad. Its probably because it happened the same day as the nuclear reactor accident in Chernobyl, which dominated the news for weeks, if not months.
From the publisher:
On the morning of April 28, 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.
I was fortunate to meet Susan Orlean at BookExpo earlier this year and picked up an advance copy of The Library Book.
If you’re in need of a positive injection of bookish enthusiasm, read The Library Book now. You’d think a book about a fire that destroyed 400,000 books and damaged another 700,000 would be depressing, but it’s not. Sure, it is very sad that so many books were lost, but by the morning after the fire, there was a sense of hope and a coming together of strangers based on the love of books and helping out for the greater good. Orlean manages to infuse that spirit throughout her book. It’s a balm for the soul in these divisive times.
You can read or listen to a preview of The Library Book on the publisher’s website here.
And check out Orlean’s extensive tour dates & locations for the book here. I’m super excited that my Book Cougars cohost Emily and I will be seeing her in NYC next week.
Visit again tomorrow when I’ll feature a surprise Willa Cather connection from The Library Book for #WillaOnWednesday. [Tomorrow has arrived! Click here for that post].
Categories: Book review