The Library Book

· Sold by Simon and Schuster
19 reviews

About this ebook



“A constant pleasure to read…Everybody who loves books should check out The Library Book.” —The Washington Post


A dazzling love letter to a beloved institution—and an investigation into one of its greatest mysteries—from the bestselling author hailed as a “national treasure” by The Washington Post.

On the morning of April 29, 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 bestselling 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.

Ratings and reviews

19 reviews
Jered Swopes
August 12, 2023
This book was a treat to read. Informative, pithy, but also familiar and comforting, the author presents the true story of the L.A. library fire in a most engaging way. I've already recommended it to many friends who love non-fiction and novels. Well done!
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Gaele Hi
October 17, 2018
“All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here is my story, please listen; here I am, please tell me your story.” And that is the simple premise of a library’s place in society – and just why we need them. Stories to transport, inform, enlighten and perhaps even to start on that tricky path to building a community. I don’t know about you -but libraries have been a place in my life that have always felt like home – from working with my mother and the other ladies on the town’s library committee to clean, refresh and update the lending catalog in the little town library, to losing myself in the stacks at the university, Boston, New York and London public libraries, and always finding something to capture attention and imagination – I have memories of library withdrawals that haunt me. Susan Orlean tells the story of a devastating fire in Los Angeles in the public library in 1986. Still questions (and effects) survive that fire- damaging or destroying over one million works. One Million. Let that sink in. My heart still hurts to think of the works lost – perhaps someone needed JUST that book at the moment to help answer a question, or propel them along a journey….. But this isn’t simply a book about the fire and an investigation – but a pointed (and often humorous) look at patrons and librarians, history of the prime suspect in the case, and details from different books that play a role in the chapter as well as the overall story arc. If you, like me, are still aggravated by the devastation of the Library of Alexandria, there is so much to love in this book – and taking this further out:, further fixing the need and place for libraries in today’s society. Told with wit, humor, incredible research and a take on the function, form and place in the world as we live it today, this book manages to provide insight, new ‘oh I didn’t know” moments and celebrates the joy of literature in all forms. Perhaps this may even stir a new desire for you to avail yourself of the joys found in a library – bring your children and let them get a lending card – I know that my daughter could not wait until she was enrolled in first grade to get her card – in fact, we went as soon as her class assignment page was in her hand. Libraries provide words… and words are the key to everything in this life. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility
13 people found this review helpful
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kelly blackwood
June 5, 2020
At once a memoir, history lesson and novel, The Library Book was written by an author clearly emotionally bonded with her subject. She made libraries feel like living things in this remarkable telling of the Central Library Fire of 1986. If you enjoy history painted with an eloquent brush then this book is for you. I will be buying a hard copy for my daughter to read.
7 people found this review helpful
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About the author

Susan Orlean has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. She is the New York Times bestselling author of seven books, including The Library Book, Rin Tin Tin, Saturday Night, and The Orchid Thief, which was made into the Academy Award–winning film Adaptation. She lives with her family and her animals in Los Angeles and may be reached at and on Twitter @SusanOrlean.

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