On the lovely spring morning of April 29, 1986, the Central Library of Los Angeles caught fire. The patrons, the staff, even the first firefighters on the scene expected a false alarm; the building’s outmoded system went off all the time. But a second fire brigade discovered smoke at the roofline and fire in the fiction stacks, where flames snaked down one overstuffed shelf and up the next. Feasting on paper, with no sprinklers or fire doors to stymie its appetite, the blaze escaped any hope of control, even as 60 fire companies from around the sprawling city marshaled for battle on Fifth Street. At day’s end, when the fire was contained, downtown Los Angeles reeked with what one librarian called “the smell of heartbreak and ashes.” The building, a fantasia out of a 1920s movie set, was gutted. Nearly half a million books and manuscripts, many of them irreplaceable, had been devoured; nearly twice as many more had been soaked by the fire hoses. An arson investigation opened before the embers cooled. An army of volunteers rallied to salvage their cultural patrimony. In the years to come, some locals marked time by the fire. One compared its epoch-defining power to the Kennedy assassination.
“The library is a gathering pool of narratives,” Susan Orlean writes. So, too, “The Library Book.” Moving forward and backward from that dreadful April day, Ms. Orlean interweaves a memoir of her life in books, a whodunit, a history of Los Angeles, and a meditation on the rise and fall and rise of civic life in the United States. Along the way, she offers vivid profiles of the kinds of offbeat, compelling characters who populate her earlier books, including “The Orchid Thief” (1998). By turns taut and sinuous, intimate and epic, Ms. Orlean’s account evokes the rhythms of a life spent in libraries, whose collections seek, always futilely, to capture “the looping, unending story of who we are.”
As personal narrative, “The Library Book” offers a frisson of delight to every four-eyed haunter of the stacks. “I grew up in libraries, or at least it feels that way,” Ms. Orlean writes, recalling frequent childhood visits to her neighborhood branch in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and walks home with her mother, their arms laden with books laden with possibility. “The place was so bountiful,” she remembers. “In the library I could have anything I wanted.”
As whodunit, Ms. Orlean’s account is less satisfying. Her portrayal of Harry Peak, the prime suspect in the arson investigation, channels Joan Didion, adding a dash of John Steinbeck for good measure. Peak, a small-town boy who couldn’t quite make good, dreamed the golden dream of Hollywood, where the sidewalks “sagged under the weight of all the handsome young men who flocked there.” The authorities’ case against Peak proved nearly as baseless as his silver-screen fantasies. Ms. Orlean delves into recent research on arson forensics, a pseudoscience long on certainties and short on evidence. The arsonist—if indeed there was one—remains at large.
If “The Library Book” falls short as true crime, it soars as urban history. Ms. Orlean recovers a Los Angeles likely to astonish even its residents: a city with a long, pronounced bookish streak. The reading room of the Amigos del País social club, an ancestor of the Los Angeles public library, welcomed patrons as early as 1844, a decade before the Boston Public Library opened. The Los Angeles City Library was opened in January 1873, the same month as the Chicago Public Library. Vintage Orlean characters led the city library in its early years. We meet “a dour asthmatic” who burned jimsonweed in his office, an “alcoholic painter” whose tenure lasted only a year, and the remarkable Mary Foy, who took the helm at age 18, becoming the first female head librarian in the United States. Ms. Orlean flirts too long with Charles Lummis, the dashing adventurer who elbowed aside a subsequent female library head, Mary Jones, in what came to be known in Los Angeles as the “Great Library War” of 1905. Lummis created a reference department and chose a friend to head it; Dr. C.J.K. Jones was known as the “human encyclopedia” and owned the “finest private library on citrus farming in the entire state.” Jones’s staff detested him and sometimes left lemons on his desk in protest.
For all their foibles, which Ms. Orlean plainly savors, none of these early leaders kept the Los Angeles City Library from succeeding. Patronage tracked the explosive growth of a city that ran on oil, railroads and motion pictures. By 1921, some 10,000 people passed through the system’s branches every day, checking out roughly 1,000 books an hour, over three million that year. In 1922, the city commissioned New York architect Bertram Goodhue, who had created the fantastical pavilions for San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition a few years earlier, to design an edifice worthy of the library’s civic prominence. Goodhue did not live to see the completion of the gaudy Central Library, which, Ms. Orlean writes, “incorporated the feel of Egypt and the jazzy lyricism of Gershwin.” Three years after its 1926 grand opening, the giddy ’20s crashed and burned. Economic hardship only increased the demand for free books and public space. As Dust Bowl refugees poured into Southern California, Los Angeles swelled to become the fifth largest city in the United States. The library outpaced even that rate of growth, circulating more books by 1933 than any other system in the country.
As the United States stared down lingering Depression and erumpent fascism, its libraries became strategic assets. The Los Angeles city librarian took a sabbatical to lead the nationwide Victory Book Campaign, which amassed some six million titles for soldiers and Army hospitals during World War II. In 1942, in a public letter to the American Booksellers Association, Franklin Delano Roosevelt linked books to the fate of the nation in its “eternal fight against tyranny”: “In this war, we know, books are weapons.” The government printing office produced a propaganda poster headlined “Books Are Weapons in the War of Ideas,” which hung in many a library.
The decade following World War II represented the high-water mark of civic life in modern America. “The Library Book” thus inevitably tells a story of decline. As the U.S. disinvested in the infrastructure and even in the idea of the commons, the vital center frayed. Los Angeles, like so many American cities, “thinned out in the center and thickened on the edges.” In 1965, the Watts neighborhood endured a violent uprising that lasted six days, claimed 34 lives and left miles of city streets in ruins. Among “the many optimistic convictions punctured by the riots was the belief that books were good and true—that on the shelves of libraries, you could find all the answers to all the questions,” Ms. Orlean writes. Goodhue’s bravura Central Library was ravaged by neglect for decades before it burned. Its gardens paved for parking, its murals caked with grime, its wires fraying and its circuits in every way overloaded, the palace had become a firetrap.
Today, more than 30 years after the fire, the Central Library shimmers like a distinctly urban phoenix. The Los Angeles library system is oriented toward an urgent present and a demanding future, even as it safeguards the salvaged remnants of its fragile past. City librarian John Szabo, who leaps from Ms. Orlean’s pages like a superhero without a cape, provides leadership that puts more celebrated innovation gurus to shame.
Under Mr. Szabo, Los Angeles has embraced the fathomless mission of the great urban library system in the 21st century. “Every problem that society has, the library has, too, because the boundary between society and the library is porous,” Ms. Orlean writes. A great “rivering flow of humanity, a gush,” sluices through the Central Library’s doors every day, seeking everything from baby-naming guides to online pornography. Branches provide services and succor to the city’s enormous homeless population, teach sex education to at-risk teenagers and grant high-school diplomas—real ones, not GEDs—online. Patrons learn English, find jobs and get flu shots. “The Library Book” is, in the end, a Whitmanesque yawp, bringing to life a place and an institution that represents the very best of America: capacious, chaotic, tolerant and even hopeful, with faith in mobility of every kind, even, or perhaps especially, in the face of adversity.