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The Library Book
Table of Contents
About The Book
A WASHINGTON POST TOP 10 BOOK OF THE YEAR * A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER and NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF 2018
“A constant pleasure to read…Everybody who loves books should check out The Library Book.” —The Washington Post
“CAPTIVATING…DELIGHTFUL.” —Christian Science Monitor * “EXQUISITELY WRITTEN, CONSISTENTLY ENTERTAINING.” —The New York Times * “MESMERIZING…RIVETING.” —Booklist (starred review)
A dazzling love letter to a beloved institution—and an investigation into one of its greatest mysteries—from the bestselling author hailed as a “national treasure” by The Washington Post.
On the morning of April 29, 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.
Reading Group Guide
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Susan Orlean, one of our most esteemed journalists and authors, turns her keen powers of observation and narrative gifts to the overlooked, underreported saga of the 1986 fire that ravaged the Los Angeles Public Library. Part detective story, part history, The Library Book serves as a meditation on and an ode to libraries, librarians, and their role in our communities.
“You can still smell the smoke in some them,” says Ken Brecher, head of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, to launch Orlean headlong into her investigation on the unsolved mystery of the conflagration that destroyed or damaged more than one million books, articles, and resource materials. At the center of the 1987 fire is Harry Peak, a charming aspiring actor, who is accused of arson but never charged. As Orlean charts the life and career of Peak, we see that there is just as much evidence to convict him as there is to exonerate him.
The larger narrative of The Library Book is its chronicle of the Los Angeles Public Library, a history that’s easily extrapolated to libraries nationwide. The library’s role in the community is directly reflective of the city’s growth from western outpost to boomtown to modern metropolis. It’s a history not without its controversies, ranging from the discrimination faced by library pioneer Mary Jones to the eccentricities of library head Charles Lummis to the ongoing debates over such matters as public funding and homelessness.
Readers and book lovers also get an intimate journal of the day-to-day lives of librarians, a rare look into the unsung and sometimes thankless world of these public servants. The days of simply cataloging books is long gone for librarians, whose roles now encompass everything from information technology to the homelessness crisis. Orlean brings the librarians of the LAPL to life, dutifully showing that the library, or any library, is a shared, inclusive community space that can be whatever its patrons need it be.
1. What has your relationship with libraries been throughout your life? Can you share some library memories from childhood to adulthood?
2. Were you at all familiar with the Los Angeles library fire? Or any library fire?
3. How would you describe the fire’s impact on the community? How about the community’s rebuilding efforts?
4. In chapter 5, Orlean writes that books “take on a kind of human vitality.” What role do books play in your life and home, and do you anthropomorphize them? Have you ever wrestled with the idea of giving books away or otherwise disowning them?
5. What is your impression of John Szabo? How does his career inform and shape your understanding of what librarians do?
6. Libraries today are more than just a building filled with books. How has your local branch evolved? Are you able to chart these changes and gauge their success within the community?
7. The Library Book confronts the issue of street people patronizing the library. Is this an issue in your hometown? How do you feel about the L.A. library’s involvement, handling of the issue, and the notion of inclusion?
8. Andrew Carnegie is perhaps the most famous supporter and benefactor of libraries. Can you name a modern equivalent who is using his or her largesse to underwrite public works? Is it more important for the public sector to have big benefactors or overall community support?
9. What was your initial impression of Harry Peak? Did it change throughout the investigation?
10. What was your reaction to the Mary Jones and Charles Lummis saga? Can you cite any similar examples from history or the present?
11. Each of the head librarians discussed in The Library Book brought certain qualities to the position. What ideas and initiatives did you like? Did you disagree with any?
12. The Library Book chronicles the history of the Los Angeles Public Library from its origins to the present day. How were the library’s ups and downs reflective of the city’s ups and down? Are libraries a fair barometer to judge the mood of a city or town?
13. Chapter 30 discusses a range of initiatives undertaken by international libraries and librarians. Do you have a favorite example that you would like to see replicated at your local library?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Schedule a time for your group to visit a local library and meet with the staff to discuss the book, the role of librarians, and how the community can stay engaged.
2. Each chapter begins with some thematically-linked books. Have each group member pick a chapter, read or research the books in the chapter openers, and then briefly present how those books relate to chapter.
3. Have each member present an idea for the local library’s programming. Narrow the list to one or two of the best ideas and formally present it to your library head with an action plan for implementation.
A Conversation with Susan Orlean
How did The Library Book evolve as you researched and wrote it? Is it a different book now than the one you set out to write?
I was drawn to the story on several levels. I was curious to explore the way libraries function and what they mean in our lives; I was interested in the history and story of the Los Angeles library specifically; and I was fascinated by the story of the fire. I always knew this book would have several different threads woven together, and that is exactly how it turned out.
Does the library and its staff have a civic duty?
Technically, yes—they are civil servants, and they’re pledged to work with the public and make the resources of the library available to them. But most of them have a sense of civic responsibility that far exceeds that; they feel a mission to serve the public and to be the caretakers of information. It’s a role the staff takes very seriously.
What was the reaction of Harry’s family when they learned you were writing about him? Has there been or do you anticipate any feedback from them as the book becomes available?
Harry’s family was enthusiastic when we met. They felt that Harry’s reputation had been ruined by his association with the fire, and they believed that I would tell his story and thus clear his name. My plan was somewhat different: I wanted to know his story and understand how he had gotten tangled up in the fire. I didn’t set out to prove his innocence. I made every effort to be objective and thorough, but my goal wasn’t to exonerate Harry, so his family might be disappointed that I didn’t do that.
The section of the book where you shadow John Szabo gives true scope and possibilities to the role of a head librarian. Did you have any idea how diverse his portfolio of duties and projects was when you started shadowing him?
I had no idea what it would be like to run a large urban library system, and I’m sure I imagined it would entail looking through a lot of book catalogs and other book-related tasks. But very quickly I realized how different the job is. For instance, just realizing that Szabo is responsible for seventy-three significant city buildings was a shock. He probably spends more time dealing with issues related to the simple functioning of those buildings than ordering books. There is an enormous amount of management involved. Still, Szabo is able to stay very involved in the more intellectual aspects of his job. He does a remarkable job balancing the various demands on his time and attention.
Was there a particular era of the LAPL that you enjoyed researching?
I became enchanted with Charles Lummis. He was such a remarkable man, such a singular figure, and his short time in the library was certainly eventful! That period—the turn of the century—was also a moment when Los Angeles was growing into itself, so it was a thrilling time to learn about.
Technology was once a threat to libraries. Now it’s an essential feature. How does technology complement a library?
Technology is an extraordinary asset for organization, which is essential to the function of a library. The electronic card catalog alone has been transformative. Technology has also allowed us to order books from the comfort of our home; to borrow e-books and movies; to use research tools offered by the library. It’s added a whole new dimension to what the library is. And on the most basic level, the library is also the most accessible free Internet, so the library has become the portal to the online world available to anyone and everyone.
The role of a librarian these days, especially in a metropolitan area, is far more than cataloging books. Was it surprising to learn and report on some of the day-to-day situations they face?
I was amazed and impressed by how librarians have adapted to their new roles, which span social service and technology as well as books. It’s a very different job from what it was in the past, and it’s begun to attract a different sort of librarian who is aware that he or she will be face-to-face with every kind of person in the city, as well as having to master all the new technology that has become part of the library.
What is the future of the local library and how do you think its role in the community will change? Should we change our fundamental understanding of it as a place that stores books for borrowing?
I’m optimistic—very optimistic!—about the future of the local library. Now that we have come to view them as a new kind of community center/knowledge hub, they are poised to become even more important and appreciated than they’ve ever been. Books will always be important to what a library is, but I love the image of the library as a pulsing intellectual and social center of a community, where we come to share stories and learn and explore, in whatever way we can imagine.
You maintain a vibrant Twitter presence. How did you come to embrace that medium?
I joined Twitter early on, and somehow the format just appealed to me. I was living in a fairly rural place at the time, and I was spending a lot of time alone, so Twitter became my “water cooler”—that is, it became the place where I’d go to chat and listen to other people, see what was going on, catch up on news and gossip. It was a perfect respite from being out in rural New York, alone with my computer. I still love it!
What do you think will be most exciting for you to discuss about this book at events, signings, and in the media?
I love hearing other people’s memories of visiting the library when they were young, and how it influenced them so much as adults. I love hearing how much people love libraries. It gives me great hope for the future of humankind.
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 16, 2018)
- Length: 336 pages
- ISBN13: 9781476740201
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Raves and Reviews
“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.”
“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
Awards and Honors
- Carnegie Medal Honor Book
- Chicago Public Library's Best of the Best
- Topaz Nonfiction Reading List (TX)
Resources and Downloads
High Resolution Images
- Book Cover Image (jpg): The Library Book eBook 9781476740201
- Author Photo (jpg): Susan Orlean Corey Hendrickson(0.1 MB)
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