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the library book

28 december 2018

In 1986, the Los Angeles Central Library was nearly burned down, losing hundreds of thousands of books and other archives in the process. Susan Orlean wondered recently why she hadn't read about this fire, the worst ever to beset an American library. I wondered the same thing. Come to find that it happened the same day as Chernobyl. No news venue gave the LA library fire any time at all, compared to the reactor disaster in the Ukraine. Well, except Pravda. Pravda covered the LA fire in great detail and gave almost no attention to Chernobyl.

Orlean's Library Book narrates the arson and the subsequent investigation in unhurried fashion. She uses the true-crime genre as scaffolding for a slow construction, on many levels, that tells the story not just of the fire but of the Los Angeles Public Library, its 1926 Goodhue building, libraries in general, and her own personal experience thereof.

Just about anybody who has associates libraries with good things – which is just about anyone likely to read this, or any book review, or any book – will be able to relate to The Library Book. Orlean is overcome with the sheer wonder of a free resource that attracts every sort of hunger for knowledge. We write books, Orlean believes, out of a determination not to pass into personal oblivion; we store them and read them in order to keep general oblivion at bay. No institutions help this project more than libraries.

The true-crime aspect of The Library Book may seem out of place in this paean to librarianship, but it's connected by more than the happenstance of the library as crime scene. The 1986 LA library fire is still unsolved. The only suspect was a now-long-deceased man named Harry Peak, but there was no evidence to connect Peak with arson. There was only scant evidence that Peak had been in the library that day. Peak is the sort of dreamy fabulator that Orlean likes to write about, a spiritual cousin of John Laroche from The Orchid Thief. True, Peak drew attention to himself by claiming to have set the library fire, but he also claimed fifty or sixty other things about the day in question; he never told the same story twice. Peak was never indicted for the crime, and subsequent civil cases fizzled out in the city actually giving him a small settlement for his trouble.

Orlean's research suggests that the fire may not even have been arson. It was adjudged an arson on the "negative corpus" principle: since no accidental cause was found, the fire was assumed to be intentionally set. But the LA library fire was exceptionally intense and destructive, making it impossible to determine, later on, where and how the fire started. Harry Peak became associated with the fire, but all he seems to have wanted was to become famous. He got his wish, in a perverse way, and now in the pages of Orlean's book he has won a kind of immortality.

Peak's eccentricity is matched by that of several directors of the Los Angeles Public Library. Wyman Jones, who died just a year ago, was city librarian at the time of the fire, and regaled Orlean with stories of his tempestuous years at the helm of the system – even, she says, as he insisted he was unavailable for interviews, and referred her to his unpublished memoir Downwind of a Belly Dancer (114). But Jones was staid compared to the early 20th-century city librarian Charles Lummis, who arrived in California on foot from Ohio, in 1885, having wanted to see what the United States was like along the way. Lummis appeared to know nothing about libraries going into the job, but was something of a literary character, having self-produced a volume of poetry that he hand-printed on birch-bark pages. Lummis became a weirdly effective advocate for the LA library and oversaw its expansion into a modern system with great popular appeal.

One of Orlean's themes is simply Southern California in general, her adoptive home and that of millions of others in the past two centuries. It is a place where anything can happen, the center of entertainment on the planet, the venue for casual, baffling crimes and great flamboyant random acts of kindness (like the many fundraising galas held by Hollywood types over the years for the library). It is a place where filmmakers and musicians borrow library material to fuel their creative drives and often fail to return it. It's a place where people come to fulfill elaborate dreams – where all those stars who never were are parking cars and pumping gas – and hanging out at the public library.

Services for the homeless, downtown development and redevelopment, the burgeoning of the Internet – Orlean packs these and many other topics into barely over 300 pages. She says that she had sworn off writing books before embarking on this project (after having done so few single-topic books previously). Let's hope she has sworn off the swearing off.

Orlean, Susan. The Library Book. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018. Z 733 .L8742O75