The Library Book

Susan Orlean’s seventh book, a passionate paean to libraries, is going to make a lot of librarians and book lovers extremely happy. Interweaving a fascinating history of Los Angeles’ Central Library with an investigation into the 1986 fire that nearly destroyed it, The Library Book does for these community hubs what The Orchid Thief did for exotic blooms and Rin Tin Tin did for canine heroes.

Like the best research collections, The Library Book is stuffed with amazing facts. In addition to the kind of information you might expect — circulation figures and the number of public library branches worldwide (320,000) — Orlean animates her narrative with mini-profiles of outstanding librarians, few of whom fit the frumpy, school-marmish stereotype. Although the individuals she introduces come off as less eccentric than the obsessives who often populate her books, there are some colorful personalities, including the flamboyant adventurer Charles Fletcher Lummis. His appointment as Los Angeles city librarian in 1905 displaced professionally trained, highly regarded Mary Jones, which sparked the vociferous protests decrying gender-based job discrimination that became known as The Great Library War.

As always, Orlean’s research is staggering. Her description of the 1986 fire, which incinerated half a million books and damaged 700,000 more as it raced through architect Bertram Goodhue’s 1926 building, is nearly as intense as the 2500-degree heat, and surprisingly beautiful: “At first, the smoke in the Fiction stacks was as pale as onionskin. Then it deepened to dove gray. Then it turned black. It wound around Fiction A through L, curling in lazy ringlets. It gathered into soft puffs that bobbed and banked against the shelves like bumpers. Suddenly, sharp fingers of flame shot through the smoke and jabbed upward,” she writes.

She explains a chemical phenomenon called the stoichiometric condition, when “a fire achieves the perfect ratio of oxygen to fuel.” We learn that the way to stop mold spores from blooming on water-damaged paper is to freeze them, and how space-simulation vacuum pressure chambers are used to defrost and dry books in the arduous restoration process.

We also learn a good deal about Harry Peak, the charming, handsome, chronic liar and “mess up” from Santa Fe Springs who quickly emerged as the city’s primary arson suspect. Orlean tracks down Peak’s sister and one of his former boyfriends, but is repeatedly frustrated by this slippery character. She tells us early on that he died in 1993 at age 34, but delays revealing the cause of death until the penultimate chapter — by which point we’ve pretty much lost interest in him and his ever-changing alibis.

Orlean’s inquiry branches out and spreads, a conflagration of curiosity. She contacts the Arson Research Project and writes chillingly of erroneous arson-related murder convictions that have been overturned based on new forensic science, including a father who was wrongfully executed for the death of his children. Her repeated pronouncement that arson is “vexingly hard to investigate,” a crime in which the perpetrators go free 99% of the time, is discouraging — except, perhaps, to pyromaniacs.

Sometimes, Orlean takes her research to ridiculous lengths, like forcing herself to burn a book on her hilltop Los Angeles property — on a windless day — “to see and feel what Harry would have seen and felt that day if he had been at the library, if he had started the fire.” (Two big ifs.) Amusingly, she rejects igniting one of her own books because “the psychology was simply too much for me to sort through.” Instead, she settles on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. She experiences an odd elation, plus “terrible fright at the seductiveness of it.” However quirky, this little experiment helps set the stage for a concise survey of book burning, from the Spanish Inquisition and Nazis to American church comic-book fires.

Orlean obviously had some fun with this total immersion project, and curious readers who love following writers down unexpected byways in search of out of the way information will too. Each chapter is headed with the titles and call numbers of four often obscure books that suggest what the chapter’s focus will be. She delves into Central Library’s architecture, and the battle between preservationists and proponents of teardown or relocation. She checks out the literacy center, Teen’Scape, the map and music collections, and the shipping department, which sends around 100,000 requested books a week from one branch to another, “as if the city has a bloodstream flowing through it, oxygenated by books.”

Above all, The Library Book makes it clear that public libraries involve far more than just book lending these days.  One of few places open to all without a fee, their role has expanded into de facto community centers — a magnet, resource, and haven not just for scholars and readers but for adolescents, parents with small children, the elderly, immigrants, and the mentally ill and homeless, who create special challenges. Modern libraries offer Internet access, language programs, social services, lectures, and answers to reference questions that range from the practical to the downright bizarre. Modern librarians, she notes, must be trained not just in the Dewey decimal system, but in how to spot bedbugs, lice, and tuberculosis – plus, how to teach computer coding to kids.

How did libraries become part of “the looping, unending story of who we are?” According to Orlean, it’s no small thanks to a long line of egalitarian and innovative “spark plug” librarians who not only think outside the box but off the shelf. One confides that he’s helped local drug dealers fill out tax returns. He cites this, Orlean tells us, as “a perfect example of the rare role libraries play, to be a government entity, a place of knowledge, that is nonjudgmental, inclusive, and fundamentally kind.”

The Library Book was sparked by fond recollections of Orlean’s childhood visits to her local branch in Shaker Heights, Ohio with her mother, who she lost to dementia while writing it. Tucked unobtrusively into a discussion of how she hopes her book will help preserve these precious memories is this wonderful remark: “In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned.” It’s a line that ties together The Library Book’s multiple themes with extraordinary deftness: books, fire, and the way that libraries, by collecting, preserving, and sharing ideas, provide a connection to something larger and more enduring than ourselves.