29th April 1986. Los Angeles Central Library is on fire. The design of the building, lack of ventilation and limited firefighter access increases the power of the fire. Thousands and thousands of books are destroyed. The librarians are outside, weeping.
Susan Orlean’s extraordinary book is partly an investigation into the cause of the devastating fire and the character of the suspected arsonist, an aspiring young actor named Harry Peak. It’s also about the idea of the library, considering what libraries are for, what they mean to us, the vital role they play in our culture and society.
The narrative alternates between the story of the fire and the history of the LA Central Library to the present day. If Susan only wrote about the fire, the book would be quite thin. Far from ‘padding out’ the book, the other material puts the fire into context. We can truly understand the impact of the fire if we understand the library’s history and functions.
The author spent years researching and writing this book; it’s a fantastic achievement and one of the best aspects is how she talks to people involved with the library and the fire, ranging from librarians to firefighters to friends and family of the suspect. She arranges interviews, tags along to meetings, rifles through archives, even ends up helping to register homeless people in the LA Central Library. Oh, and she burns a book (it’s research, you understand). Her description of the books burning in the library fire is horrific, yet gripping. I also found it interesting to read about the recovery and conservation of the books that survived.
If you love libraries and learning, then read this book! Quite appropriately, I borrowed it from a library.
Thanks to Jee @ Hooked on Bookz for bringing my attention to this book with her review last year.