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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 325

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Susan Orlean takes a single story, the 1986 burning of the Los Angeles Central Public Library, and expands it into an exploration of the cultural, social, and political significance of public libraries in the United States. Among the themes are the importance of free, open public libraries to literacy and education. Closely related is the central role that these public institutions play in poor communities, where low family income often makes buying books prohibitively expensive. Addressing the emotional bond that Americans feel toward their local libraries, she incorporates the theme of community pride as a crucial, but perhaps endangered American attribute. Finally, the highly personal nature of individual attachments to libraries is a key theme, as Orlean uses her own library-going experiences to connect to those of the many others she interviewed for the book.

The huge Central Library fire, which lasted more than seven hours, burned more than one million books and injured dozens of people, including firefighters. Although one man, Harry Peak, claimed responsibility for arson, then later denied it, neither he nor anyone else was ever charged. Orlean examines the evidence and conflicting stories that influenced investigation of his claims. The author devotes several chapters to the fire itself and its aftermath, including the professional and volunteer efforts to move forward. She then chronicles the history of the library prior to the fire.

By focusing on this central location of the Los Angeles public library system, she also chronicles of the development of the public heart of a vast, often impersonal metropolis. Within the idea of a library as a barometer for the development of a city and even a region, she includes its service as a refuge for the homeless and other disenfranchised people as well as for the affluent. Although Los Angeles specifically and Southern California more broadly present unique cases, Orlean effectively argues for the relevance of libraries full of books, not just any medium containing ideas, in contemporary society.