Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book” is a book lover’s dream and nightmare.

About a particular public library, Los Angeles Central, and its 1986 fire that burned for more than seven hours, destroying 400,000 books and damaging 700,000 more, Orlean’s book is also tangentially about Los Angeles, the city of self-invention. And it’s about a wannabe actor who may or may not have set the largest library fire in the history of the United States.

Orlean has written perceptively and artfully about locations before. In “My Kind of Place,” her collection of long-form journalism, most published in the New Yorker, she even wrote about my hometown of Midland, Texas, and she nailed it. But this book is about more than a physical place, or even a public space: “In truth, a library is as much a portal as it is a place — it is a transit point, a passage.”

Orlean and her family moved to Los Angeles in 2011 when her husband took a new job. Her first-grade son, tasked to interview a city employee, chose to talk to a librarian. Orlean was just learning about the city herself when she took him to a branch library and experienced a poignant memory of going to the library with her own mother in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Orlean writes: “It was decades ago and I was three thousand miles away, but I felt like I was lifted up and whisked back to that precise time and place, back to the scenario of walking into the library with my mother.”

Shortly thereafter, touring the downtown Central Library — a massive architectural achievement built in 1926 — she offhandedly learned about the big fire when her tour guide mentioned that some of the books still smelled of smoke. And so the ever curious Orlean began a several-year immersion into the history of the fire, the library and its supporting cast, past and present, and the unsolved arson investigation.

Harry Omer Peak was the possible arsonist, an aspiring actor from one of the small towns that ring Los Angeles. A “fabulist,” he told others he started the fire, then denied it and gave a head-spinning number of revisions to his alibi. The Harry Peak story is the through-line to Orlean’s book.

Orlean is sensitive about the role the public library plays in our shared lives: an institution that provides data, information and access to the world’s knowledge, as well as a safe place. “Libraries have become a de facto community center for the homeless across the globe,” she writes.

Orlean occasionally waxes romantic, but overall, this is an ambitiously researched, elegantly written book that serves as a portal into a place of history, drama, culture and stories.

 

Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance book critic and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

The Library Book
By: Susan Orlean.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $28.