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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

The Library Book by Susan Orlean tells the story of the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire, in which nearly a million books were damaged or destroyed. The cause of the fire remains a mystery even today; while investigators suspected arson, no suspect was ever charged. Orlean chronicles the investigation...

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The Library Book by Susan Orlean tells the story of the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire, in which nearly a million books were damaged or destroyed. The cause of the fire remains a mystery even today; while investigators suspected arson, no suspect was ever charged. Orlean chronicles the investigation in her book, focusing on the central suspect Harry Peak. Peak, an aspiring actor, was arrested in 1987 after claiming that he set the fire. However, Peak was also a known liar who often made up stories to increase his "stardom" and perceived celebrity. After three days of questioning he was released without being charged, and the mystery of the fire remained unsolved. Orlean describes the fire and damage in exquisitely painful detail; writing that the fire “glowered angrily, feeding itself book after book, a monster snacking on crisps”. It is painful for any book enthusiast to read; and brings to mind imagery from fictional book burning in novels such as Fahrenheit 451 and the non-fiction book burning of totalitarian political regimes. To further emphasize the devastation of the fire on the library's collection, Orlean connects the story of the Los Angeles Central Library to a Senegalese proverb that when a person dies, "his or her library has burned." In other words, there has been a great loss of knowledge with the loss of the person; not unlike the loss of knowledge that comes with both the destruction of the books themselves, as well as the public space in which to enjoy and analyze them.

Despite its focus on the 1986 fire and its aftermath, Orlean's The Library Book is above all a "love letter" of sorts to the library system and its role in the community. She traces the evolution of the library; highlighting key figures in its development including Mary Foy (who, at the age of eighteen in 1880, was the first woman to be selected as head of the Los Angeles Public Library) and Charles Lummis (an eccentric writer, conservationist, and Los Angeles city librarian). Orlean writes about more recent events in the library's history as well; the telethon hosted by a cigar-smoking pastor to raise money for the library's reconstruction, and the role of today's librarians in advocating for the city's vulnerable homeless population. Orlean weaves these personal stories into her book to convey to critical role that libraries play in not only the storage of our collective knowledge, but in our societal interactions as well. For Orlean, libraries are places that belong to all of us; it is a feeling that she seeks to instill in the reader. They are powerful institutions; providing a place for discourse and discovery even in today's digital world.

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