Review by New York Times Review
At the Library THE LIBRARY BOOK By Susan Orlean Illustrated. 317 pp. Simon & Schuster. $28. ON April 29,1986, the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles caught fire and burned. Nobody died, though 50 firefighters were injured and more than a million books were damaged. The fire didn't attract much attention at the time - maybe in part because that same week a nuclear reactor melted down in Chernobyl and sent the stock market crashing. The New York Times didn't bother to mention it until the day after it had been extinguished, and only then as an aside, on Page A14. But even after arson was suspected, and a suspect identified, the fire never laid any claim to the public's imagination, ft was just one of the many senseless, regrettable things that happened, was briefly noted and then more or less forgotten. Maybe more to the point, nothing in the subsequent 32 years has occurred to heighten the natural interest of the subject. And yet now Susan Orlean - who, back in 1986, like most of the rest of the world, had failed to notice that there had even been a fire inside the Los Angeles Central Library - has written an entire book about it. She's done this sort of thing before - most famously with "The Orchid Thief." Spike Jonze seized upon that one to make a movie ("Adaptation"), which was primarily a satire aimed at Hollywood but also a decent argument that there was no way to turn a Susan Orlean book into a movie unless you tossed the book out and replaced it with a more conventionally thrilling story. To which I now say: If you think "The Orchid Thief" was challenging to adapt, take a crack at "The Library Book." The most cinematic thing that's ever occurred inside the Los Angeles Central Library appears to be this one fire, and even the fire wasn't all that cinematic, as fires go. Afterward, the most compelling related dramas were the various efforts to dry the books. Really, no one should search this material for a movie. But - and here's both the mystery and the charm of Susan Orlean - it has made for a lovely book. Or rather, two books. The first is about the fire itself - which Orlean eventually reveals was likely the result not of arson but of accident. Arsonists, she explains, are at once, oddly, extremely difficult to catch and unusually likely to be wrongly convicted. Roughly one in a hundred cases of actual arson are successfully prosecuted; at the same time, a surprising number of people have been sent to jail for a crime that was never committed. At any rate, the 1986 fire inside the Central Library, and the subsequent, inconclusive investigation of it, turn out to be a MacGuffin, a trick for luring the reader into a subject into which the reader never imagined he'd be lured: the history and present life of the Los Angeles Central Library. Much of the book consists of its author wandering around a library building, watching and listening to the people inside it. "My hero is Albert Schweitzer," one of the librarians tells her, after she asks him if he likes his job. "He said, All true living is face to face.' I think about that a lot when I'm here." "My friends think because I'm a librarian, I know everything," another librarian says. "We'll be watching the Olympics, and suddenly, they'll say, 'Tina, how do they score snowboarding at the Olympics?' Or out of the blue, 'Tina, how long do parrots live?' " That's the first thing that strikes Orlean: how even in the age of the internet, the public library remains the place people come to for answers to their most pressing questions. The search has not been entirely replaced by the search engine. Orlean finds old records, kept by librarians, of the hundreds of questions put to them every day, by people from all over the country: "Patron call. Wanted to know how to say 'The necktie is in the bathtub' in Swedish. He was writing a script." "Patron call asking whether it is necessary to rise if national anthem is played on radio or television. Explained that one need only do what is natural and unforced; for instance, one does not rise while bathing, eating or playing cards." "Patron inquiring whether Perry Mason's secretary Della Street is named after a street, and/or whether there is a real street named Della Street." "Why would someone call here and ask, 'Which is more evil, grasshoppers or crickets?' " a librarian asks, as she puts down the phone, in earshot of the author. "The Library Book" is indeed an entire book about a library. The surprise is that the library, though insistently undramatic, has been, pretty much since its inception, so insistently attractive to interesting characters. Charles Fletcher Lummis is here just a case in point. The Los Angeles Public Library had opened in 1873. Women were forbidden from the main reading room at first but by 1885, when Lummis arrived in Los Angeles from the Midwest, women were running the place. Until then he'd been a newspaper reporter with a talent for attracting attention to himself - he'd walked from Ohio to California in knickers and tomato-red knee socks, and written columns about it along the way. Arriving in Los Angeles, he wrote that it was "a dull little place of some 12,000 persons" and then proceeded to make it a lot less dull. He built a private pleasure palace, employed a family of troubadours, threw the best parties in town and, despite being married, slept with seemingly every woman he met. "Lummis's life wasn't on a course that would lead naturally to becoming a librarian," Orlean writes, and yet a librarian he became. The library's board of directors, deciding it wanted a man to run the place, fired the competent woman then in charge, and replaced her with Lummis. Right away Lummis set out to improve the tastes of the citizens of Los Angeles. He paid a blacksmith to create an iron with a skull and crossbones brand, which he stamped into the frontispiece of "pseudoscience" books. He then had the library create warning labels to paste into the books - his original plan was to include text that read: "This book is of the worst class that we can possibly keep in the library. We are sorry that you have not any better sense than to read it." (He was ultimately persuaded to tone it down.) He promoted the library as he promoted himself and aimed to make it "a workshop for scholars including every painter's apprentice or working boy or streetcar man who wishes to learn, just as much as it includes the Greek professors or the art dilettante." He trained his assistants to be "aggressively useful," and explained to all that "books are the last things that any human being can afford to do without." At the same time he was in many ways indefensible, as the face of the public library. He continued to have sex with every woman he met. One of his troubadours murdered one of his housekeepers. Eventually - after having exerted enormous influence on the library - he was fired, whereupon he penned an angry letter to a friend. "You will remember I was not a Sweet Girl Graduate of a Library School," he wrote. "I was a Scholar and Frontiersman and a Two-fisted He-Person and that I went to the roots of that Sissy Library and made it, within two years, an Institution of Character, a ??-Library of which we were all proud." Anyway, you get the idea. Susan Orlean has once again found rich material where no one else has bothered to look for it. Her book is less a straightforward story than an exercise in mining her intense feelings for a subject. 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. MlCHAEL lewis is the author, most recently, of "The Fifth Risk," about what happens when the people meant to be running the federal government don't bother to learn what it does, or why.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 23, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review
*Starred Review* Libraries pulse with stories and not only those preserved in books. When creative nonfiction virtuoso Orlean (Rin Tin Tin, 2011) first visited Los Angeles' Central Library, she was transfixed. Then she learned about the 1986 fire, which many believed was deliberately set and which destroyed or damaged more than one million books and shut the library down for seven years. Intrigued, Orlean embarked on an all-points research quest, resulting in this kaleidoscopic and riveting mix of true crime, history, biography, and immersion journalism. While her forensic account of the conflagration is eerily mesmerizing, Orlean is equally enthralling in her awestruck detailing of the spectrum of activities that fill a typical Central Library day, and in her profiles of current staff and former head librarians, including brilliant and forceful Tessa Kelso, who ran into censorship issues, and consummate professional Mary Jones, who was forced out in 1905 because the board wanted a man. Orlean widens the lens to recount the crucial roles public libraries have played in America and to marvel at librarians' innovative and caring approaches to meeting diverse needs and cutting-edge use of digital technologies. She also attempts to fathom the truth about enigmatic Harry Peak, the prime arson suspect. 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. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Orlean's best-sellers have long lives, and this well-publicized praise song to libraries will have special book-lover appeal.--Donna Seaman Copyright 2018 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin) doubles as an investigative reporter and an institutional historian in this sprawling account of the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Central Public Library. On April 29, 1986, just before 11 a.m., a fire broke out in the stacks of the main branch and burned for seven hours, destroying 400,000 books and damaging hundreds of thousands more. Harry Peak, the man police believed started the fire, was arrested but never charged. Orlean's investigation into the fire-Was it arson? Why would Peak, a struggling actor and frequent patron of the library, want to burn it down?-leads her down the library's aisles of history, as she seeks out books on the flawed science of arson forensics along with titles from California serial killer Richard Ramirez's reading list to better understand the minds of psychopaths. Along the way, she introduces readers to California Public Library system staffers, among them Arin Kasparian, on the circulation desk; Kren Malone, director of the main branch; and Glen Creason, a senior librarian whose tenure spans "the fire [and] the AIDS crisis, which killed 11 librarians." Midway through, Orlean reveals her own motivation for her return to long-form journalism: her mother's dementia has made her acutely aware of how memories are doomed to be forgotten unless they're recorded. This is a persuasive reminder of the importance of libraries, whose shared spaces house historical treasures built with the common good in mind. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review
In this lively and multilayered portrait of the Los Angeles Public Library by Orlean (The Orchid Thief), the author describes a source as "electrified by everything he told me about the library." The same can be said for Orlean, whose enthusiasm and affection for the nearly 150-year-old institution is contagious. As in previous books and essays, Orlean assembles a panoramic profile from an array of fascinating details, from the library's earliest days as a reading room to its current thriving community presence as a provider of English classes, sheet -music for orchestras, services for the homeless, and more, including sketches of its charismatic-sometimes eccentric--directors, staff, and patrons. This sweeping, cheerful history revolves around a singular terrible event: the 1986 fire that ravaged the Central Library, destroying some 400,000 books. Orlean's affecting account of the tragedy and its painful aftermath, as well as the many people it touched, points to a suspect who was never indicted. But the overall tone is warm and engaging, offering a love letter to libraries everywhere. VERDICT Orlean's fans, library lovers, and readers of eclectic nonfiction will enjoy this entertaining, informative account. [See Prepub Alert, 4/9/18; "Editors' Fall Picks," LJ 8/18.]-Lisa Peet, Library Journal © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to "tell about a place I love that doesn't belong to me but feels like it is mine." It's the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski's "wondrous place," and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged "for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degreesmore than one million books were burned or damaged." Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, "We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell.It was surreal." Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, "the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books." She continues, "destroying a culture's books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened." The author also examines the library's important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a "solace in the Depression," and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak's guilt but remains "confounded." Maybe it was just an accident after all.Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.