The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Guardian
By Alexander Larman

An elegant history of the Los Angeles Public Library lauds both the building that survived a fire and its vivid patrons

In Susan Orlean’s enthralling and inspirational account of the Los Angeles Public Library, she alludes to a common euphemism used by the Senegalese when someone dies, namely that “his or her library has burned”. This poetic expression, implying the loss of a great store of knowledge, came into literal focus on 29 April 1986, when the LA library caught fire, destroying more than 400,000 books and devastating the community reliant on its resources. Yet, like a phoenix, it rose from the flames, greater and more beloved than ever. This book is a homage not just to the spirit and resilience of those who rebuilt the library, but to those whose lives are transformed by these public palaces of reading, on both sides of the lending desk.

Orlean describes the conflagration itself with a novelistic relish. As “the cookbooks roasted”, she conveys the full horror of the fire, how it “glowered angrily, feeding itself book after book, a monster snacking on crisps”. The flames themselves were “extraordinary and unforgettable” – a colourless, all-consuming force that could be stared through like a pane of glass, even as it destroyed everything in its path. What caused the fire? At the time, suspicion fell on would-be actor Harry Peak, a fantasist who claimed and then denied responsibility, though he was never charged, nor was anyone else. Orlean sensibly leaves it to the reader to decide whether Peak could have been the culprit, or if he was simply an attention-seeker.

This is not a book about an unsolved crime. Orlean moves smoothly between dealing with the fire and its aftermath, the life of the resurrected library today, and its foundation and subsequent history. Interesting facts leap out from virtually every page; we discover, for instance, that the greatest threat of theft did not come from the poor or disaffected, but from nascent Hollywood studios, which, careful with their finances, would send factotums to steal books needed for movie research.

Orlean’s history of the library – which, when constructed, “seemed more like a proclamation than a building” – throws up a plethora of unlikely but vivid characters. It is hard not to be amused by the worldly pastor Gene Scott, who organised a telethon to raise millions for the library’s refurbishment. Scott, who called himself “the most agnostic believer and the most believing agnostic”, would deliver profanity-laced sermons to his congregation while smoking a cigar and backed by bikini-clad dancing women.

Then there was the early librarian Charles Lummis, writer, social pioneer and eccentric, who celebrated his appointment by walking thousands of miles across America, from Cincinnati to Los Angeles, after which he embarked on an eventful and swashbuckling career that, in Orlean’s telling, makes him seem more like a character from books than one who organised their loans.

Above all, this excellent book is an unashamed love letter to the public library system. Although British readers might raise an eyebrow at a couple of the statements – we learn, for instance, that librarians’ starting salaries in LA today are more than $60,000 – the theme of how, as the Manic Street Preachers put it, “libraries gave us power” is both universal and stirring. Orlean writes early on that “I grew up in libraries, or at least it feels that way”. In this fine and heartfelt saga, she repays a lifelong debt with both passion and elegance.

Susan Orlean
Culture