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The Library Book by Susan Orlean
True crime

The Library Book

by Susan Orlean

Quick take

A book about a place that holds books? #bookception

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On the morning of April 28, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual fire alarm. As one fireman recounted, “Once that first stack got going, it was ‘Goodbye, Charlie.’” The fire was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading into an investigation of the fire, award-winning New Yorker reporter and New York Times best-selling author Susan Orlean delivers a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling book that manages to tell the broader story of libraries and librarians in a way that has never been done before.

In The Library Book, Orlean chronicles the LAPL fire and its aftermath to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives; delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from their humble beginnings as a metropolitan charitable initiative to their current status as a cornerstone of national identity; brings each department of the library to vivid life through on-the-ground reporting; studies arson and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; reflects on her own experiences in libraries; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the LAPL more than thirty years ago.

Along the way, Orlean introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters from libraries past and present—from Mary Foy, who in 1880 at eighteen years old was named the head of the Los Angeles Public Library at a time when men still dominated the role, to Dr. C.J.K. Jones, a pastor, citrus farmer, and polymath known as “The Human Encyclopedia” who roamed the library dispensing information; from Charles Lummis, a wildly eccentric journalist and adventurer who was determined to make the L.A. library one of the best in the world, to the current staff, who do heroic work every day to ensure that their institution remains a vital part of the city it serves.

Brimming with her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, The Library Book is Susan Orlean’s thrilling journey through the stacks that reveals how these beloved institutions provide much more than just books—and why they remain an essential part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country. It is also a master journalist’s reminder that, perhaps especially in the digital era, they are more necessary than ever.

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Member ratings (1,600)

  • Julia H.

    Bethesda, MD

    I really enjoyed this book. I love libraries. The author must, too, in light of her attention to the detail describing the LA library’s history, its main librarians, and the investigation of its fire.

  • Kristin T.

    South Windsor, CT

    Loved this book!! How can you not LOVE a book about libraries and books?! It was so interesting to learn the intricacies of the library world, and transported me back to my childhood love of libraries

  • Caroline J.

    Bronx , NY

    I LOVED this book! I have been an avid reader since childhood. Memories of my elementary school library are some of my fondest. Learning how libraries have changed over time was cool & super nerdy!

  • Jamie S.

    Hanover, MD

    This was my first time reading this author. The subject matter (books & libraries) could easily put someone to sleep, but the author masterfully weaved the history together. Will look for more by her!

  • Laurel J.

    New York, NY

    I will not shut up about how much i loved this book. If books played any sort of formative role in your life, this one will make you cry, laugh, and want to take up arms to defend your local library.