Book Review: The Library Book


On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times bestselling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.

In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.

Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.

Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.


This novel beings as a memoir in which we learns about the author’s introduction to books and libraries by her mother. As an adult, Orlean was brought to the LA Central Branch library by her son’s school project. During this visit, Orlean learned about the destruction of the LA Central Branch by fire in 1986. She wondered why had she never heard about this event.

The memoir slowly turns into a crime investigation. The fire occurred on April 29, 1986. It burned for over 7 hours. More than twenty people were injured and over fifty firefighters hospitalised. One million books were damaged, some beyond repair and other contents of the library destroyed irreparably. Fire investigators from both the LA Fire Department and the Federal Department of ATF concluded that the conflagration was caused by arson.

This is the story of a library that is more than just places for the storage of books. The LA Central Branch, has become a learning centre for new immigrants, refuge for the homeless and so fourth. It is a place for everyone. Who would want to destroy such a place?

I found myself intrigued by the diversity of the collection of novels it has as well as learning more on how a library is run as it is the place of novels for everyone so of course, as a reader it is interesting to read about.

Another element of this novel is that it is a romance – a love of books. Books not only teach, but transform our worlds. Libraries provide the raw material for our knowledge and transformation be that through hardbacks, paperbacks, e-books and so fourth. I loved this quote: “a library is a place that doesn’t belong to me, but feels like mine…marvellous and exceptional.”

This novel is for all readers alike as you will become captivated by the story and the author’s passion of books which we can all relate to in some way.

5/5 Stars

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