Nonfiction Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

5 out of 5 stars!

In the morning hours of April 29, 1986, a fire broke out in the Los Angeles Public Library.  Seven hours later, the building was severely damaged and over 1 million books, maps, microfiche files, musical scores, and many irreplaceable manuscripts and rarities were either destroyed or heavily damaged from water and smoke.  Arson was soon suspected and a massive effort to save the 700,000 damaged items was quickly underway.

Author Susan Orlean first heard of this devastating fire when she moved to Los Angeles and visited the library.  Being a life-long lover of books and with fond memories of childhood library visits, Orlean set out to learn more about this destructive fire and the man accused of arson.  The result is The Library Book.

The Library Book is more than just a story about the fire and the search for a suspect.  We learn about the history of the Los Angeles Public Library and some of the more memorable characters who helped create it, including Mary Foy, the first (and youngest) woman to become city librarian;  the adventurous Charles Lummis; and the forward-looking Althea Warren, who led the library through the Depression and World War II and adding services such as an advice line for parents and a phone-in reference service while envisioning even greater advancements in the future.  Orlean also talks to current employees and we discover their love for “their” library as well as the concerns on current issues they face on a daily basis.

And, of course, we learn about Harry Peak, the man who was arrested for setting the fire.  Sorry, no spoilers here though.  You’ll have to read the book to discover the outcome.

I loved reading this book.  It combines true crime, history, sociology, and even a lesson on how to rescue a large number of water-logged books.  I found Orlean’s writing style to be engaging and accessible.  You don’t have to be a bibliophile to enjoy The Library Book and I highly recommend you give it a go.


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