The Library Bookby Published 16 Oct 2018
|The Library Book.pdf|
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.
"The Library Book" Reviews
Hundreds of thousands of books were burned to nothing but ash and hundreds of thousands of books were damaged - enough to bring chills up the spine of any book lover reading this book about the fire at the Los Angeles Public Library that occurred on April 29, 1986. The research and the writing here are impeccable. The descriptions of the fire, the librarians’ reactions, and the many, many volunteers who wanted to help - it’s as if it’s being reported in real time. The book, however, covers so much more than the story of the fire, although it’s the main focus. It is in many ways a tribute to libraries and librarians and what they stand for and the importance of the library now and in the future. It is a personal testament to Orlean’s love of libraries and her early experiences going to the library as a young child with her mother. I loved her reminiscing because it made me remember my own history with the public library in the neighborhood where I grew up. I remember the hours I spent there and some of the books that I read and the fond memories of when I worked there as a library “page” in high school and through college.
This is also a fascinating history of the LA public library and the library directors, the City Librarians, over the years. It’s the story of the people who use the library. It’s the story of the volunteers who after the fire “worked for the next three days around the clock.....They formed a human chain, passing the books hand over hand from one person to the next, through the smoky building and out the door. It was as if, in this urgent moment, people, the people of Los Angeles formed a living library. They created for a short time, a system to protect and pass along shared knowledge, to save what we know for each other, which is what libraries do every day.” I was also struck by the stunning words of a librarian, Jill Crane who helped with the cleanup and wrote in a poem:
“We held charred and water soaked
chunks of books in our hands,
history, imagination, knowledge
crumbing in our fingers.
we packed what was left.”
She also gives us Harry Peak’s story, arrested but never charged with starting the fire and describes the difficulty of proving arson and proving that he was responsible. So much is contained in the book and I felt at times that it was a little scattered moving from the fire to her experiences, to the history and then to the fire and the investigation. But ultimately it was an an emotional book for me as a retired librarian, although not a public librarian, but mostly as a book lover. The scenes described of the burned and damaged books got me in my gut and the coming together of volunteers to do what they could got me in my heart and then when several years after the fire, the library reopened. This fabulous book is an ode to librarians and the public library, which represents the fabric of our society in so many ways.
I received an advanced copy of this book from Simon & Schuster through NetGalley.
Susan Orlean was speaking with the Los Angeles Times about this book before its release....( I enjoyed listening to her speak on NPR as well).
When talking about her interest in writing about a big city library this is what Susan said:
“I could have done that anywhere. I like the idea of doing it in L.A., out of this
contrarian idea that people don’t associate libraries with L.A., which made it kind of delectable. That said, the 1986 fire ( forgive me), was a spark!
The reason I find Susan’s comment about folks not associating libraries with Los Angeles....is because I never really thought about it, but she’s absolutely right. She’s so right - it wasn’t even in my consciousness, ‘at all’, and I live in California with family throughout L.A. I also never heard of this fire - shows you how asleep I was - and every L.A. person in my life too. My youngest daughter was a year old in 1986.
Everything in this book was new to me.
This past year - I’ve used the public library system daily .... a zillion times more in one year ( at age 66)....than ALL my past years combined. Some readers might be appalled -aghast at such ‘horror’. I’m only telling the truth. I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid - I remember some lovely walks I took alone or with a friend to the library as a child to listen to ‘the storytelling lady’......but reading wasn’t encouraged in my family. Not really. Actually nothing was encouraged - other than ‘good behavior’ at school and elsewhere. Many of you have heard this before - I’m a very late bloomer passionate reader. I fell in love with reading-for-pleasure accidentally as an adult the year the book “The Glass Castle”, by Jeannette Walls came out in the year 2006. I’ve already shared my reading process in my Glass Castle review.....
Point is.....I didn’t come close to having the experience that Susan Orlean had - with books and reading- as she did. I don’t have ‘mom & me’ reading memories to draw on and my dad died when I was 4.
I’m sincerely grateful to Susan Orlean - other authors with similar writing skills - to my long time reader friends —( hearing ‘their’ childhood memories are a treasure for me)...
All that said.....I liked MUCH of this book. I LEARNED A LOT about libraries - in general - not ONLY in L.A. - but my fear is I’ll forget many details too. I don’t own this book - ( I listened to Susan read her book as an Audiobook).
It’s a GORGEOUS PHYSICAL BOOK.... I think I’d continue getting value if I owned it. I can’t possibly hold all the details from the Audiobook alone. I took notes .....
The parts I found more interesting I remember. Some parts of her book - she lost me - I just don’t know what she was talking about. ( so then of course I felt stupid - like why haven’t I heard of that book or person?).....
Everything about the fire was fascinating.....( of course devastating in reality - HORRIFIC)..... but the THEN WHAT?..... The examination of this nightmare was fascinating and ALL THAT FOLLOWED......books going to restaurants - into freezers - learning about water damage - all the volunteers- and learning all the logistics of WHAT WE NEED TO KNOW.....in case..... such devastation should ever happen again ...
And better ways to avoid it EVER HAPPENING AGAIN. Lots and lots of details answer questions I didn’t even know I had. The pure knowledge was eye opening.
Susan’s Family was inspiring to me....her INCREDIBLE love for books, goes without saying.
Her research was top notch. She gave us history & mystery - in the similar way Erik Larson did in “The Devil in the White City”....
She gave us personal history..
We got a great education on how libraries run and their importance for our communities.
We were given history on the arson investigation....
TONS TO GREAT INFORMATION......
But....honesty I had mixed feelings about the ENTIRE PROCESS of Susan burning a book.....
just to have the experience.... from her three week prior agony as to which book to choose .... to the NAILS ON A CHALKBOARD description of every detail.....
.......physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually in burning that book.
My stomach was churning.....and not because I’m a ‘book-protecting-police-saint-( although I treat books with respect and cherish them as a live entity,too, somewhat)...
but because Susan’s book-burning-story was a little over-the-top dramatic for me.
Something about it made me want to rebel from the general greatness from where this book comes from.....
A LOVE TRIBUTE TO OUR PUBLIC LIBRARIES!
4.5 stars...... rating up....this book deserves it. I personally didn’t enjoy every part of it, but I did most of it — and my appreciation is much bigger than my small gripes.
“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.”
For many people, I imagine libraries are like places of worship - everyone is made to feel welcome and part of a greater community.
In the case of a library, it’s a community not only of readers, but also of people looking for someone to answer their questions, migrants taking literacy classes, people needing help with bureaucratic forms, teens wanting a safe place to hang out, collectors with memorabilia to donate . . . the list is endless . . . although it does eventually end with homeless people seeking a safe place to sit out of the weather. (If they fall asleep, they may be turfed out.)
The Los Angeles Public Library has had a particularly lively history and some unbelievably colourful people running it. Charles Lummis was one of the most charismatic and peculiar men around, I suspect, even in the wilds of Los Angeles in 1885.
Lummis was in Ohio when he was hired, and he decided to walk from Ohio to California, ostensibly to find out about America, but really to make an entrance when he got there. And he did. His “tramp” was covered by the newspapers and he was famous by the time he arrived. It all helps with funding!
This is him in his sombrero and bright green, wide-wale, corduroy suit with red Indian-patterned cummerbund which he wore all the time. He’d fit right in with today’s Hollywood.
[photograph of Charles Lummis]
The author introduces each chapter with the library details of various books that might apply to the chapter. The central story is about the LA library and the devastating fire, but the history of early libraries and its own establishment are woven in with the details of the fire and the mystery surrounding the suspected arsonist.
Susan Orlean is a well-regarded author and is also a staff writer at The New Yorker Magazine, so you know you’re in good hands. What could have been a dry history book is more like investigative journalism, with plenty of gossip and innuendo – this is Los Angeles, remember! Lummis was famous for his drunken parties and wild friends, and his section of the book reads like something out of the hippy days nearly a century later. There really is nothing new under the sun.
I won’t attempt to summarise Orlean’s excellent research or the police hunt for the perpetrator, but I do want to mention some of the book-burnings she describes. She even tried to burn one herself, to see what it would feel like, but she had a terrible time bringing herself to do it.
“Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue: They take on a kind of human vitality. The poet Milton called this quality in books ‘the potency of life.’ I wasn’t sure I had it in me to be a killer.”
In another part of the world:
“In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned.”
They say that history belongs to those who write it. That’s true – to a point.
“The first recorded instance of book burning was in 213 BC, when Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang decided to incinerate any history books that contradicted his version of the past. In addition, he buried more than four hundred scholars alive.”
What a frightening thought. But then in our own time, during WW2, the Holocaust attempted to wipe out an entire people, including the books.
“Special book-burning squads known as ‘Brenn-Kommandos’ were sent out to burn libraries and synagogues.
. . .
“By the end of the war, more than one third of all the books in Germany were gone.”
Meanwhile, back in the States
“In the 1940s, for instance, a schoolteacher named Mabel Riddle, with the support of the Catholic Church, began a campaign to collect and burn comic books because of their energetic portrayal of crime and sex. . . many local parishes sponsored their own comic-book fires. In a few instances, nuns lit the first match.”
. . .
“Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”
Back to Los Angeles. The fire and its aftermath are described in horrifying detail, but the amazing thing is that it’s the water from the firefighting that causes so much damage. Mould and mildew are as bad as fire. Did you know you have to freeze a wet book to salvage it? What do you do with thousands of them? The fish markets! The logistics of packing wet books, moving, storing, freezing, rebuilding the library are extensive and exhausting.
Oh, one more thing. When pseudo-science books started becoming popular, Lummis instituted his own “Literary Pure Food Act”, branded the books with a “poison” symbol, and added inserts.
“The cards, shaped like bookmarks, said, ‘For Later and More Scientific Treatment of This Subject, Consult______,’ followed by a blank space for librarians to list better books on the topic.”
More libraries, more librarians, sombreros and all!
Thanks to NetGalley and Simon and Schuster for the preview copy of this fascinating bit of history.
3.5* rounded up!
“The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”
This book follows, and is a thorough investigation, into the Los Angeles public library fire. This fire occurred on April 29 1986 and destroyed more than 400,000 books, as well as rare photographs, manuscripts and first editions. However, this was not largely publicised or given as much attention due the overshadowing on the story of the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine.
Not only was this a comprehensive and an extensive investigation into how the fire possibly started, it also focused on the interviews of the prime suspect, Harry Peak, and what type of man he was.
This book also extended out of focusing on the fire and provided a detailed history of the Los Angeles public library. Susan Orlean details how the library is ever-changing and shifting and can be a safe haven for people, for example, during the war and through the depression in America. I was particularly interested in the women's history behind the management of the library and this was presented and detailed very well. There was also a focus on the new forward-facing future of libraries and the involvement of the ever-changing digital world.
What made this book good was the incorporation of many different sources of people. Susan Orlean details these characters; from security, to genealogy, music experts and the heads of the library, each character brings their own fascinating tales of their time in the library, and how working in a library is so much more than stacking shelves of books. Each story was bursting with unique life and responsibilities.
Some of the fondest childhood memories I have were of my Mother taking me to the library. I held my Moms hand as we walked in and as so as I saw my section, I begged to let go of her hand as I nearly ran to grab new books that my parents and I would read together. My Mother’s arms were full of mysteries, best sellers, biographies, cookbooks and of course, my books. I loved seeing my Mom stack the books on the counter and then that sound. The sound of the library clerk stamping the library card with the due date in each book.
As I grew older, I was allowed to ride my bike to the library and using my own library card, I ventured to the teen sectiion for the latest Judy Blume book. Now as adult, my love of the library continues as I carry more books than I should to the counter to hear the electronic beep of knowing that for three weeks, those books are mine.
The Library has been an essential part of my life so I was thrilled to have a chance to read Susan Orlean’s new book, The Library Book.
This nonfictional account of the 1986 fire of the Los Angeles Central Library. Orlean recounts in The Library Book, the fire that destroyed over 400,000 books and damaged another 700,000 more in the span of seven hours.
The fire and the mystery of who set the fire alone would be a compelling tale by itself but Orlean gives us so much more.
According to the Public Library Manifesto published by UNESCO, “The library is a prerequisite to let citizens make use of their right to information and freedom of speech. Free access to information is necessary in a democratic society, for open debate and creation of public opinion.”
Orlean goes to great lengths and depth to showcase the importance and role of libraries in our communities. The Library Book is such a captivating novel with a blend of mystery, history and thorough analysis of the future of libraries.
Read Susan Orlean’s novel and you will have visited the mystery, geography, biography, humor, history and political sections of a library all in one book. Thank you to Netgalley for an advance copy of this book. My reviews are fair and unbiased. #netgalley #thelibrarybook