The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Susan Orlean’s latest book is a warm, intelligent read you should curl up with in your favorite reading nook — possibly at the library — if you want to feel better about the world. Or anything at all.
A lot of people are going to call this book a love letter to libraries, and they’re not wrong. But this isn’t just a love letter. It’s a long-term correspondence, a story that covers decades, which leaves room for it to also be a pot-boiler mystery, a character study of a wannabe Hollywood star, a history of the west and women in the workplace, an examination of how the profession of librarian has transformed (they’re informational social workers now), and a personal essay about Orlean’s mother and their shared love of reading and libraries.
The Library Book takes bibliophiles on a journey through the doors of Los Angeles’ Central Library, which is housed in an unusual building and suffered a blaze in 1986. The great fire raged for seven hours and burned at temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees. Firefighters on the scene described seeing flames so pure, so hot, that the fire temporarily burned clear. The concrete structures that held the Central Library’s stacks inadvertently acted as flues that channeled the increasing intensity as the perfect fuel, book after book, lit in the stacks. The library lost 1 million books to flames and water damage. Once the hoses were off, investigators had little to go on but posited some theories — and an arson suspect — anyway.
Orlean is a writer for The New Yorker, but she has lived in Los Angeles for years. She wasn’t in California when the fire happened but still wondered how she could’ve never heard of a fire that destroyed a million books. As she often does in her work, she digs in and finds regular people who have stunning stories to tell and a fascinating history hiding in plain sight.
As for the library itself, that history is one that matches America’s cultural and intellectual history and the legacy of the American West. The Los Angeles library started as more club than public institution. Members had to pay for access; the notion of libraries as essential pillars in the public structure of a community came later. Women competently ran the library until an all-male board elected to oust a female librarian for an outsized personality, a journalist who moved to California from the Midwest by walking there, writing his tales of the still-wild West as he went.
Much later, after the library expanded into many branches in a sprawling city, the building that housed the Central Library itself became a poignant tale in the library’s history. The Goodhue Building, designed by architect Bertram Goodhue, opened to much fanfare and skepticism in 1926. By the time of the fire, the building had only become a more controversial hotspot on the city’s landscape, and after the fire, firefighters blasted the Goodhue Building as a structure that couldn’t have had a better design for creating a difficult-to-put-out blaze.
A new story rises out of the ashes when arson investigators land on a suspect: Harry Peak, a sometimes-employed actor doing odd jobs around Los Angeles. His sister tells Orlean that Peak was incredibly charming but harmless, even though he was the “biggest bullshitter in the world”:
“He had a gift for drama and invention. He was a storyteller, a yarn-spinner, and an agile liar; he was good at fancying up facts to make his life seem less plain and mingy…so quick to fib and fabricate that even his own family didn’t believe a word he said.”
Orlean follows this thread and the meager “evidence” arson investigators had against Peak. Peak himself didn’t help the investigation; he was constantly reinventing his stories, both for friends and acquaintances and to the investigators themselves. Orlean confesses her own back and forth, her own uncertainty about Harry Peak. This is part of the fun of reading the work of someone so adept in the school of nonfiction known as New Journalism — we see her mulling what she has uncovered, wondering if the factual answer is out there. In these moments when she breaks down the fourth wall, Orlean either enlivens the story or takes great pulls on our heartstrings. In the closing chapter, during the last of many walks through Central Library, Orlean writes a reverie of her mother, echoing their frequent visits to the Bertram Woods branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library system in Cleveland, where she grew up:
“I thought about my mother, who died when I was halfway done with this book, and I knew how pleased she would have been to see me in the library, and I was able to use that thought to transport myself for a split second to a time when I was young and she was in the moment, and tender, with years ahead of her, and she was beaning at me as I toddled to the checkout counter with an armload of books. I knew that if we had come here together, she would have reminded me just about now that if she could have chosen any profession in the world, she would have been a librarian.”
If you’ve never cried over a book, perhaps this is your moment. Orlean’s skill is in full force in these moments and so many others in The Library Book. The sad moments are never sappy, just as the characters are never staid caricatures, just as the legal proceedings of the arson investigation are never dry. The Library Book is a compelling tale with a warm embrace that doesn’t let go, instead letting us pine long after the closing pages for Orlean’s next work of journalistic, literary art.