The Library Book

by Susan Orlean

Hardcover, 2018


Checked out
Due Dec 9, 2019



New York : Simon and Schuster, 2018.


Susan Orlean re-opens the unsolved mystery of the most catastrophic library fire in American history, and delivers a dazzling love letter to the beloved institution of libraries.

Media reviews

On 29 April 1986 Los Angeles Central Library went up in flames. ... Susan Orlean has a knack for finding compelling stories in unlikely places. ... Orlean uses the fire to ask a broader question about just what public libraries are for and what happens when they are lost. You might not perhaps have LA pegged as the most bookish city, yet right from its inception in 1873, the central library attracted a higher proportion of citizens through its doors than anywhere else in the US. By 1921 more than a thousand books were being checked out every hour. The reason for that, Orlean suggests, is that LA has always been a city of seekers – first came the gold prospectors and the fruit growers, then the actors and the agents, and then all the refugees from the dust bowl prairies. No one was as solid or as solvent as they liked to appear, everyone was looking for clues about how to do life better.

This was where the library came in, providing the instruction manual for a million clever hacks and wheezes. In the runup to prohibition in 1920 every book on how to make homemade hooch was checked out and never returned. Five years later a man called Harry Pidgeon became only the second person to sail solo around the world, having got the design for his boat from books borrowed from the LA public library. More mundanely, the library quickly became the chief centre for free English language classes in the city, a service that it continues to provide for its huge immigrant population today.

It is this sense of a library as a civic junction that most interests Orlean. ... Or, as she puts it: "Every problem that society has, the library has, too; nothing good is kept out of the library, and nothing bad."
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“The Library Book” is, in the end, a Whitmanesque yawp, 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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member JaredOrlando
The Library Book is a groundbreaking journalistic view on the importance of libraries in our past, present, and future culture.

It could stop there.

But Susan Orlean goes further, giving us the narrative of the horrific Los Angeles Public Library fire of 1986, interviewing those who there and lived during this period.

Through these interweaving stories, we learn how the library is not only a place for books, but a force of good for children, the homeless, and those who vouch for the importance of knowledge and learning.
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LibraryThing member lisapeet
Oh, this was just lovely. The book is a history of the L.A. Public Library, particularly the 1986 fire that devastated it—and it makes you wish that every library system was fortunate enough to have a biographer, because Orlean pulls out the most marvelous, evocative details about it from its founding to the present day—but it's also a love letter to libraries in general, which is just a wonderful thing. Of course I love it, given how I feel about libraries. But it's also really accessible and warm, and I just want everyone to read it so they can feel that love too.

A real review is coming shortly, but that's my mushy version.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
This was certainly a well written non fiction book about the Los Angeles library. At first it appears to be an investigation into the tragedy of the 1986 fire that destroyed or damaged some 400 thousand volumes, but it turns out to also be about the history and importance of libraries, their place in our world. That being said I didn't quite get all the hype. I am glad I read the book and gathered some good insights but can't say I would highly recommend it to others.
Some quotes:
"The reading of the book was a journey. There was no need for souvenirs."

"In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it—with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited—it takes on a life of its own."

"It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived."
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LibraryThing member Maydacat
Some serious editing would have improved this book considerably. Well-researched, there is a myriad of information in its pages, but some of it is just not necessary. The author veers off the path more than once, to give examples and explanations of things not germane to the subject of books. I’m still trying to figure out why she thought information on shaken baby syndrome was necessary, or why the investigation of other fires was pertinent. I agree with another reviewer who stated the parts about Harry Peak could have been eliminated. Much of the information on the suspected arsonist was not necessary, especially since it could not be proven that he really was involved. If the author had chosen to talk more about the effects the loss of the books and library had for its employees and its patrons, it would have been a better book.… (more)
LibraryThing member NinieB
On the positive side, Susan Orlean is in fact a really good nonfiction writer. I'm certainly interested in reading her other works. She does a great job of narrating the history of the Los Angeles Public Library. The day of the fire in 1986 is enthrallingly told. Also, those interested in the history of Los Angeles should find much of interest here. And, with the caveat below, nonlibrarians will gain new understanding of the work that public libraries and librarians do every day and of the reality that it's not just about the books, and appreciate the passion of modern librarianship.

The caveat mentioned above is that Orlean's portrait of librarianship and what librarians do all day is an outsider's portrait. She gave a lot of space to ready reference, which today is a small part of reference librarianship, and hardly mentioned the more typical "how do I find this" and "I'm looking for a book on" questions. More irritating is her repeated mentions of libraries as repositories of books, without adequately rebutting this notion. While her discussions of librarians' activities counterbalance the repositories statements, it's the statements themselves that are phrased in a way I don't think a librarian would phrase them.

By all means read this book. Just be aware that it's an outsider's view of public libraries.
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LibraryThing member nancyadair
I remember when I first heard there was a place where one could borrow all the books one wanted to read.

My elementary school, Philip Sheridan, was brand new and filled with recently published children's books. There was a small library in my second-grade classroom and after the teacher read a book out loud to the class I would borrow it and read the book myself. Then I started to pick up other books, like the biography of Robert Louis Stevenson which I read over and over. I knew his book of children's poetry A Child's Garden of Verses--now I knew there was a man behind the words.

When the teacher said there was a whole building of books called a library I went home and asked my mother if she would take me to the library.

She said I was too young and a year passed before we walked down the road to the Sheridan Parkside Library and I got my first library card. It was so hard to choose my three books! I borrowed Follow My Leader, which our teacher had read to the class, a history of Australia because I had an Australian pen pal, and D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths.

Wherever we moved, I continued to frequent libraries. And when our son was born, I would put him in the stroller and walk to the local library. As a preschooler, he would borrow 15 books a week. As a high schooler, he volunteered at the library resale bookstore. I joined book clubs at the local library wherever we moved. I made friends with librarians at the smaller libraries and the staff would know us. But I had never given much thought about everything that goes on to make a library run.

I had enjoyed Susan Orlean's book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend and that motivated me to want to read The Library Book. As I read it I found myself thinking about the many libraries in my life, appreciating them more and more.

Orlean begins with stories of libraries in her life growing up and how she wanted her son to have the same experience. Going to the Los Angeles Central Library, one of the most beautiful buildings she had ever seen, she learned about the April 29, 1986 fire that destroyed a million books.

Why don't we remember this event? Chernobyl took over the news that week.

Orlean's book is a history of the Los Angeles Central Library, the investigation into the fire, the extraordinary work to save the books, and an exploration into the role of libraries in society today.

When investigators can't determine the cause of a fire it is considered arson, and then comes the search for the person who started the fire. The case centered on Harry Peak, a fabulist with a deep need for attention.

We meet the memorable people who make the library run and see how the library functions in today's society as a democratic, open, public space. The LA library has developed outreach programs to the homeless and unemployed and offers a safe place for teenagers.

Libraries everywhere are changing to meet the needs of its community. Digital books audiobooks are available to download to electronic devices. In our small suburban city full of young families the library has intergenerational coloring days, reading to pets, speakers and concerts, Lego days, movies, card making, scrapbooking, magic shows, and of course book clubs and summer reading programs.

I enjoyed the book as history and for its insights into an institution sometimes considered outdated, but which the Millennial generation has embraced. Most of all, I am grateful that Orlean has made me better appreciate librarians and library staff for their contributions.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
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LibraryThing member cohenja
This book alternates between a loving account of the library as an enduring institution and the story of the great fire in the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986. The contrasting stories reminded me a bit of Derek Larson's Devil in the White City, a book that had dueling stories of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and a serial murderer operating at the same time (and I also highly recommend this book). Those of us who have completed research with the aid of librarian already know that the library is a place of knowledge magic. (Full disclosure- I am a librarian, late in life to the profession). But it is so much more: a community center; a safe non-judgmental place to get help; and a public portal to the internet just to list a few.

The author depicts the history of the LA Public Library from its beginnings. There are pioneers in library service who led the LA Public Library. For example, in the 1880s one of them proposed lending things other than books; this is now a common practice. My library lends everything from phone chargers to video cameras. The author offers a compelling argument why the library will continue to endure, whether or not its role as book lender, or the use of the physical book itself, diminishes.

The story of the fire is a tragedy. The principal suspect, Harry Peak, was truly a Los Angeles character. He came to LA to become an actor and drifted around seeking attention. No one could tell if there was any truth to any of his varying accounts of where he was the day of the fire, but he reveled in the telling of his stories and the attention they brought.

This book is a great read. Buy it, borrow it from the library in physical form or on OverDrive.
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LibraryThing member Figgles
A very readable book that tells the story of the modern library through the lens of the history the Los Angeles Public Library. If you thought libraries are dull this will disabuse you of that idea. I'm a librarian and work in a large State Library and I found myself nodding and saying "yes!" as Orlean laid open the issues ranging from the pragmatic (budgets, staffing and politics) to the eccentric (donations from obsessive collectors of maps and menus, strange reference requests, the story of the purported arsonist Harry Peak), the tragic (services to the homeless) and the dramatic (the fire itself!). I was interested to discover that drug dealing in libraries has a long history with LAPL reporting problems as early as 1926. Libraries are our shared space where no one is turned away, where all can learn and participate and this book shows us how they have adapted over time without losing this core mission. A recommended read for librarians and non-librarians alike.… (more)
LibraryThing member gpangel
The Library Book by Susan Orlean is a 2018 Simon & Schuster publication.

I couldn’t have been happier when this book finally reached the top of my TBR pile. I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a long time. Naturally, I was drawn to the ‘books about books’ aspect, but was also mortified by the true crime elements. Who on earth would deliberately set fire to a public library?

Susan Orlean attempts to answer that very question, while detailing the rich history of the Los Angeles public library. What a fascinating journey it was –

The author, who is not originally from LA, had not heard about the fire that ravaged the central library back in 1986, until an offhand remark piqued her curiosity. Her research unearthed the library’s storied past, which is a compelling drama all on its own.

But she also attempts to shed light on the fire and the primary suspect, Harry Peak. Was Peak guilty, or just a consummate liar?

The book begins on a horrifying note. In 1986, the library housed a very impressive number of books and records, which included a large ‘stacks’ area. The building was not up to code either, so it only took a short time for the old dry paper to ignite and spread rapidly. Any type of fire which destroys a home or business is difficult to hear about. But, of course as a book lover, I was nearly in physical pain reading about the hundreds of books damaged by fire, smoke or water.

It was also disconcerting that the fire barely made a blip in the press. Granted, there were other major news stories going on at the time. But, now for the first time, thanks to the amazing work this author did, we can see how the fire effected the city, the patrons, and the librarians. We also get a close -up and personal look at how a library functions and the important work librarians do. What an amazing job. Working with the public has its drawbacks, of course, but I was truly impressed with how the librarians handle all the phone calls, answer questions on a myriad of topics, and cope with situations such as how to handle the homeless who often use the library to as place of shelter during operating hours.

The wealth of information and history surrounding the Los Angeles public library is vast and completely absorbing, especially if you are passionate about books and libraries. The mystery surrounding the fire, however, is perplexing and frustrating. Orlean presents the facts, and I must agree with her opinion of the prime suspect. The book is categorized as ‘True Crime’, but more than anything I think it falls into the history category. It is also a book that makes one truly appreciate the importance of libraries.

I have always supported libraries, and I try to remind people that although Netgalley, Edelweiss, KU, and Scribd, provide thousands of books right there at your fingertips,( and I am as addicted to these services as anyone else), the library will never reject you ‘based on the information you provided in your profile’, and it doesn’t cost you a dime for a library card. So, don’t forget to take advantage of everything the library has to offer-

Books- both print and digital, audiobooks, music, movies, documents, newspapers, magazines, research material, job information, book clubs, children’s story hour, free access to computers and the internet, literacy programs, programs to help learn new skills, community clubs, and a host of other services- most of them free.

There are many ways to support your local library: volunteer or donate any books or magazines you don’t plan to re-read or keep, and if you are in a position to do so, offer a little financial help from time to time. You can even deduct it on your taxes!! Funding for libraries is not always stable or dependable.

Obviously, book lovers need to read this one, as well as history buffs. While it starts off on a somber note, by the end of the book you will feel as though this eye- opening journey was a rewarding adventure. I am in awe of the LA public library, and its rich history, and have an even greater appreciation for the importance of libraries in general.

Orlean did a terrific job with her exhaustive research and it is obvious she put in many hours with those involved with the library and with those associated with Harry Peak. The book is well- organized, and unlike some non-fiction history books, I never zoned out or lost interest. If you love books or libraries, history, or True Crime this book is one you won’t want to miss out on!
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LibraryThing member breic
I found the subject pretty thin. Despite her purple prose, it was disappointing how shallow Orlean's investigation into the LA library fire ended up being. The building was a firetrap, money had been budgeted to improve it for years, and yet nothing had been done. Who was responsible? I suppose, "It [will] remain a story without end, like a suspended chord in the last measure of a song—that singular, dissonant, open sound that makes you ache to hear something more."

Orlean also seems to think it is cute, rather than scandalous, how wasteful some of the library jobs are, e.g., people who answer Google queries over the phone all day. The long lists of library collections are pointless, and the title lists at the beginning of each chapter are precious. Orlean herself says that she never goes to libraries.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
Reading about a giant 1986 library fire in LA now counts as escapism. Orlean is a great writer who moves from the history of the LA library system to the way a fire spreads to an inquiry into the life of the guy who was ultimately blamed for (but never charged with) starting the fire. It’s a great read.
LibraryThing member tangledthread
I had never heard of the LA Central library fire in 1986, but given the fact that it occurred at the same time as the Chernobyl Nuclear accident, it's not hard to understand why. The premise of this book is built on the fact of that fire, but it is so much more. It is an ode to libraries, using the Los Angeles Central Library as the starting point for exploring:
The history of libraries and the profession of librarians.
The mechanics of libraries.
The importance of libraries in communities.
The future of libraries.
The architecture of the Los Angeles Central Library

And finally, the story of the library fire and the confusion surrounding the investigation of that fire. Including the entanglement of Harry Peak the suspected arsonist, but perhaps only a fabulist, who found himself at the center of the fire investigation.

It is a nonfiction story, woven in a similar pattern to that of the author's previous book, [The Orchid Thief]. To anyone who loves books and libraries it provides a story which is engagin and interesting.
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LibraryThing member gbelik
This is a history of the Los Angeles Public Library, with a focus on the 1986 fire that destroyed a good part of their collection and seriously damaged the building. It is a great read.
LibraryThing member dono421846
Well-written, engaging, and eye-opening history of the Los Angeles Public Library. The narrative centers on the 1986 fire, and then radiates outward into the past to uncover the history and people behind the library from its beginnings in the 19th century, and into the present, as the library is renewed.

If the book has a shortcoming, it is that it could have done with more graphics. If you go online there are some dazzling images of the LAPL. Although these may not have translated well into black and white for this book, at least better images of the building, its layout and signature elements would have not gone astray.

This being real life, the story of who set the fire is perhaps anticlimactic, but it can only be what it is. A thoroughly enjoyable read.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
This is a nonfiction account of the 1986 fire at the LA public library, but really the author dives into the history and purpose of libraries in general. Even though she meandered at time, I was interested throughout the book. I loved learning about the librarians’ personal lives and the everyday struggles they face.

“On a library book shelf thought progresses in a way that is logical but also dumbfounding, mysterious, irresistible.”
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LibraryThing member TheCriticalTimes
I was so eager to read this. I mean it's a book about libraries for crying out loud, or rather the going up in flames of one big one. Let me get right to the point: I don't care about the author's personal life or involvement. It seems to be a trend these days that if you're writing a non-fiction book you can secretly make it about yourself instead. I'm sure the author did her research and I'm sure all the facts are there and are complete and I'm sure her conclusions about the alleged arsonist all make sense, but I never felt like I was ever inside the Los Angeles Public Library. That's ironic because I've been there and I didn't feel remotely that the book described my experience.

Let's talk about some details about the building that are sure fire giveaways that this book has too much misplaced descriptions and too many distorted observations. If you've ever been to that building and you've done any kind of walking around you will notice some very unique aspects. For example, I found that in the men's room none of the stalls had doors. You would think that might be noteworthy. The author describes how the old part of the library is connected to the new one via escalators. Anyone who has every taken those is intimidated, not delighted. Striking a metaphor by calling it a waterfall is a gross misrepresentation of what it's like and indicative of a writing style that tries to polish and burnish real life as if it's a fairy tale.

Every person the author meets is wonderful and lovely and entirely positive, even the mean and nasty ones. Other reviewers have also noticed this and describe the book as overly cloying. I couldn't agree more. Ironically, every time the author gets close to describing a real person it cuts off, which is where I got interested and ultimately lost faith in this book altogether.

The antagonist is such a typical Los Angeles flake that anyone in that city could point out hundreds more like him and I kept wondering how many more of his ilk were in the library the day it went up in flames. Any of them were more likely to be the culprit. You can tell that the author is desperately trying to squeeze interest out of a person who was completely uninteresting.
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LibraryThing member sleahey
Orlean is a nonfiction storyteller who is able to turn a library into a character that we care deeply about. The Los Angeles Public Library is at the center of her tale, and she describes its history in considerable detail, with a focus on its horrific fire in 1986. This book is also a true crime drama, since the fire was determined to be arson, with a primary suspect. To bring this homage to libraries to life, Orlean not only tells about each of the library directors since the L.A. Library's founding, but also enumerates all of the building's architectural origins and changes, as well as the political forces that have affected it. She became acquainted with many of the current library staff, and the portrait she paints of their jobs and the patrons they encounter is a particular strength of the book. This will have particular appeal to librarians and their fans.… (more)
LibraryThing member susan.h.schofield
This was a fascinating book. It told the story of the 1986 fire at the Central Library in Los Angeles as well as the story of the main suspect, Harry Peak and the history of the library and it's librarians. If you are thinking this does not sound at all interesting, you would be totally wrong. Susan Orlean is a wonderful writer and she presents the story and the history in such a way that you will not want to put the book down. Book lovers will thoroughly enjoy this book. It gave me a new appreciation for libraries and what they bring to our lives. I received an ARC of the book from NetGalley.… (more)
LibraryThing member creighley
On April 29,1986, the most catastrophic library fire occurred in 5e LA Central Library. It reached temperatures of 2000 degrees, burned for more than seven hours, consumed more than 400,000 books and damaged more than 700,000 more. Orlean investigates the fire and in the process showcases the vital role that the public library has played and does play in our indicidual lives and in our communities. She also manages to relate the evolution of the library and its continued importance in our society.
A little disjointed at times as she reflects from one period to another, but still an enlightening read for lovers of the written word and lovers of the library.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
Loved this story of the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library. It is a crime story as well as the story of the many interesting people that have made the library what it is today. It is also a love story to libraries in general--a place where everyone is welcome, there is something for everyone, and a place not just to store books but a place of ideas, dreams, and comfort.

There are many interesting characters that inhabit this story from the likable but random young many who was charged with the arson to the 18 year old Mary Foy, the first female librarian in an establishment that allowed only men. Librarians are really the heroes of this story as they have stood against censorship of ideas and freedom of information. Charles Lummis is another memorable character who was a journalist, an adventurist, and a librarian who was determined to make the LA Public Library one of the best in the world.

The author also takes a realistic look at libraries today. While technology brought about many challenges, the challenges of homelessness and human needs brings even larger and harder challenges which are harder to remedy. Still today, most cities and town support libraries and see their place in an ever diverse society. Truly an enjoyable read. And, I loved the format of the book including the very realistic book pocket in the back. This is a book for anyone who loves to read and loves libraries.
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LibraryThing member BillieBook
300 pages of library—and librarian—love. What's not to like?
LibraryThing member bookappeal
Orlean describes her re-introduction to public libraries as a parent, an experience that brings back the fond memories of regular trips with her mother to the local library. Now living in Los Angeles, she becomes interested in the history of the Los Angeles main library when she takes a tour and finds out that the library experienced a devastating fire in April 1986. The cause was determined (possibly in error) as arson but a strong enough case could never be made against the one suspect, Harry Peak, a young man who aspired to be an actor and was prone to exaggeration about his life. This book could have left the Peak investigation behind. The more interesting parts of the book revolve around the library. Orlean occasionally gets into the weeds with side plots she finds interesting but the library's history, the differences of main librarians over the years, details about the fire, how the tragedy affected employees (which is only barely addressed), and the role of libraries in all communities prove to be more entertaining and enlightening than the story of a unreliable fame-seeking failed actor suspected of arson.… (more)
LibraryThing member Dreesie
Orlean is an amazing writer. In this book she has made the history and librarians of the Los Angeles Public Library seem like a fast-paced novel, and turned the 1986 fire that destroyed much of the Central Library collections into a detective story for the ages. Even the science that saved so many books becomes fascinating. She weaves together the history, the librarians, the fire, the search for the arsonist, the life of the main suspect, with the cleanup and the present. Masterfully done nonfiction writing is such a joy to read!… (more)
LibraryThing member BooksForDinner
Come I understand that I am a librarian, but this was my favorite book I've read in a little while. Really well written, three different main threads going at the same time (and keeping my interest in all three), great research, some nice humor. I tweeted the author that it was obvious this book was written with a lot of love; love for people, for books, for history, and of course for libraries.… (more)
LibraryThing member CMDH5
The Library Book by Susan Orlean on the surface is a book about the Los Angeles Public Library fire in 1986 that burned for over seven hours, the single biggest library fire in the history of the US. It’s actually a love letter to libraries, their history, their place in our communities, and the tireless men and women who work there. I’m a lover of libraries, have used them in many capacities throughout my life, but was amazed what I did not know (and what I learned). The author writes not simply about the Los Angeles Library but the history of libraries, their evolution, their future. It gave me a renewed appreciation for the vast role libraries play within communities and how that will continue to evolve. I highly recommend this for bibliophiles and history buffs alike.
I received an advanced reader copy (eGalley) from Simon & Schuster through NetGalley. This review reflects my honest and unbiased opinions.
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