The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book
by Susan Orlean
Simon & Schuster, 2018

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On one level, bestselling author Susan Orlean’s new book The Library Book tells a straightforward story about a tragedy and a crime. Midmorning on April 29, 1986, a fire broke out in the Los Angeles Public Library and burned for more than seven hours, reaching temperatures of 2000 degrees, destroying roughly 400,000 volumes, and damaging many thousands more. Firefighters from all over the city were called to the blaze, but thanks to the building’s antiquated construction and ventilation system, there wasn’t much that could be done once the fire took on a life of its own.

Conditions, Orlean informs us, soon became what firefighters refer to as stoichiometric: absolutely perfect for sustaining a fire. “Combustion that complete is almost impossible to achieve, but in this case, it was achieved,” one firefighter remarked. “It was surreal.” [25] The Central Library had been a vital hub for the community: 900,000 books were loaned each year, and 700,000 people visited. Suddenly, in the course of a single afternoon, it was a scorched ruin.

Arson was immediately suspected, and readers already familiar with Orlean from popular books like The Orchid Thief will relish the prospect of what follows as she looks at all the evidence, reconstructs the setting, and essentially re-investigates the crime. It’s not an easy kind of writing to do well, and Orlean is thrillingly fantastic at it.

The investigation soon concentrated on a handsome blond wastrel called Harry Peak, who dreamed about becoming an actor (his life in LA was, “luminous with possibility,” Olrean writes. “It was in the chemical makeup of Los Angeles; possibility was an element, like oxygen”) [51] but mostly just drifted from one arrangement to the next. Several library staff members picked Peak out of a lineup of suspicious people they’d seen just before the fire, and when questioned Peak was spectacularly inconsistent. “The problem with Harry was that he didn’t just tell one unswerving lie,” Orlean writes. “He presented so many versions of the story that believing one mean disbelieving another; he produced a continuous coil of untruths, each contradicting the one preceding it.” [224] There are roughly 200 library fires in the US alone every year, and in this case investigators were certain this one was set by Harry Peak.

Orlean interviews everybody still available and goes over all the evidence for and against Peak’s guilt, and she writes it all with tremendous narrative skill. Readers who might not imagine themselves interested in the nuts-and-bolts details of a library fire 40 years ago will find themselves hanging on every twist in the tale.

But as satisfying as that tale is, there are other levels to The Library Book, and they’re every bit as satisfying and more surprising. The book not only delves into the horrible day when the Central Library burned hotter than an oven for seven hours; it also explores the library’s past and the cast of eccentric characters who peopled it. And more unexpectedly and memorably, it also tells the larger story of libraries themselves - what they are, what they do, and what they mean to all the people depend on them for so much more than books. There are more than 320,000 public libraries in the world, ranging from grand cathedrals of marble and brass to saddle-packs strapped to donkeys and camels, and Orlean’s book regularly widens to embrace all of these places and all of the things they do, so many of which are intangible. Readers learn about people running “tiny libraries in the basements of city halls in Polish villages” or barely eking by on nonexistent funds in small-town Kenya, and in all such places the same larger dream exists. “It was like everyone was in on a great realization,” Orlean writes. “That libraries have persisted, and they have grown, and they will certainly endure.” [297]

This is the most lasting magic of The Library Book: this ravishing evocation of the magic that has at one time or another enchanted us all. The book functions perfectly well as a thrilling true-crime history, but it’s these broader moments that make it a special achievement even for this seasoned author and brings out some of her most beautiful prose. “It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries - and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well,” she writes, and how many of her readers will be nodding along, silently overjoyed to find their own feelings so perfectly expressed? “In the library, time is dammed up - not just stopped but saved. The library is the gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.” [12]

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.