Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book by Susan Orlean is about the Los Angeles Public library including what happened during the fire of 1986 via @tbookjunkie

Why would anyone want to set fire to a library? Surely, nothing can be gained by causing such damage?

In The Library Book by Susan Orlean she tries desperately to uncover what happened to the Los Angeles Library back on the 29th April 1986, when a fire swept through the building destroying more than 400,000 books.

The Library Book: The Story

There was only ever one suspect, Harry Peak, an odd-jobs man who was desperately trying to break into acting.  There was just one problem – there was no concrete, physical evidence that put Harry at the library when the fire started.  There was a witness who said she was knocked down my Harry as he rushed out of the building but it could never be corroborated and therefore remained circumstantial. 

The fire burnt for more than 7 hours that day and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees so it is a miracle that people did not die, although several were injured.  Even today, after all of these years, there are books dotted around the shelves that were saved but still smell of smoke.  In fact, more than 700,000 books were damaged that day and it took years to repair some of them – the same amount that you would find in roughly 15 average-sized libraries.

The Los Angeles Library fire was the biggest fire in American history but timing meant it was overshadowed in the news.

“The biggest library fire in American history had been upstaged by the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. The books burned while most of us were waiting to see if we were about to witness the end of the world.”

From reading this account by Susan Orlean though it does sound like it was a ticking-time-bomb; a complete fire hazard and once one stack caught alight it was only a matter of time before the whole library went.

Susan has spent years trying to uncover what really happened that day, trying to ascertain the truth and in doing so she has also learned an awful lot about library life and why libraries are still a valuable asset today.

It seems that the Los Angeles Library provides more than just a book-borrowing service.  It is where vulnerable individuals can go to gain help, get warm and perhaps even get back on their feet.  It is a social hub for youngsters not wanting to hang out on the streets. It is a place where people attend talks, complete their homework or simply seek refuge in a peaceful environment and without The Library Book a lot of this would be unknown to the wider world.

Why I think others should read The Library Book

It may not sound like the most exhilarating topic to some but this is an account of a real-life arson case that has never been solved.  It uncovers what actually happened and why the case against Harry Peak never stood up in court.  Was he to blame for the fire? There is compelling evidence to suggest he was but for some reason, he was able to confuse people enough into thinking he was nowhere near the scene of the crime – or was he? I am not sure after reading this that even Harry Peak knows where he was or what he was up to at the time the fire started.

Susan Orlean has provided not only an account of the fire that ripped through the library but highlights the important role that libraries still play in modern-day life. She writes about how the initial library came about and how it has evolved to become something that is still important to the wider community.

However, even with all Susan’s research one question still remains – why would anyone want to set fire to a library?

Who is Susan Orlean?

Before writing books, Susan was a writer for The New Yorker, Probably her best-known book, The Orchid Thief, written in 1998, was made into a film adaptation starring Meryl Streep.  Since then she has written many other books including My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend and The Floral Ghost.


Have you read The Library Book? Would you recommend it to others? Have you read other true-crime books that you think others should know about?


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