‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean documents the devastating fire that raged for seven hours at Los Angeles Public Library in April 1986 and destroyed or damaged over one million books. Investigators quickly concluded that the fire was probably an arson attack but the cause has never been solved and the main suspect, Harry Peak, was arrested but never charged.
The fire broke out just as the news about the Chernobyl disaster became known around the world. Interestingly, while publications such as Pravda remained silent about the worst nuclear accident in history, it found space to cover the Los Angeles library fire in some detail, whereas Chernobyl dominated media coverage across the rest of the world and the fire was overlooked and forgotten relatively quickly. Orlean’s book will hopefully bring this episode to light for a new audience of those like me who had never heard about it before.
As well as the fire itself and the aftermath, Orlean weaves in the history of Los Angeles Public Library and the colourful characters who ran it from when it was founded in 1872. Ray Bradbury, author of the most famous novel about book burning ‘Fahrenheit 451’, was a frequent visitor in his youth. Orlean also covers the history of libraries in general and library fires. An estimated 100 million books were burned by the Nazis and even though the destruction of libraries might be an inefficient way of waging war from a military perspective, the deliberate destruction of books still has enormous emotional and cultural resonance.
The true crime element of ‘The Library Book’ sees Orlean explore the investigation surrounding Harry Peak’s alleged involvement in starting the fire. It is left to the reader to decide for themselves whether or not he was a deluded, attention-seeking fantasist or a practised liar. However, ‘The Library Book’ is predominantly a tribute to the public institutions at the heart of communities around the world and Orlean provides a thoughtful and thorough examination of the value of libraries as one of the few public spaces which can be used by anyone at no cost. The themed library catalogue listings complete with Dewey decimal numbers at the beginning of each chapter are also a nice touch.
‘The Library Book’ is an excellent piece of narrative non-fiction and it goes without saying that I would recommend it to bibliophiles everywhere. Many thanks to Simon & Schuster for sending me a copy of ‘The Library Book’ via NetGalley.