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'The Library Book' review: Susan Orlean pens love letter to books and libraries

The author focuses her top-notch reporting on the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire.

Susan Orlean's latest, "The Library Book," is out

Susan Orlean's latest, "The Library Book," is out Tuesday. Photo Credit: Noah Fecks / Simon & Schuster

When the Los Angeles Central Library caught fire on April 29, 1986, it burned for almost eight hours, destroying or damaging more than one million books. That horrifying event — still the largest library fire in United States history — is the ostensible subject of "The Library Book," by New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean (“The  Orchid Thief”).

The blaze is meticulously evoked with unbounded fascination, but this book is so much more than just top-notch reportage. Orlean grew up going to libraries with her mother, and that childhood affinity is evinced on every page. As sappy as it may sound, this book is really a love letter to books and libraries, and anyone who shares that love will be enchanted.

Orlean has seemingly absorbed the entire history of the nearly 150-year-old Los Angeles Public Library system, revealing a wide-ranging cast of characters. They include 18-year-old Mary Foy, who in 1880 became Los Angeles’ first female librarian, to C.J., a deaf and autistic man with an encyclopedic facility for maps whose grandfather was one of the firefighters when the library burned.

The burning of books is Orlean's narrative thread, and in addition to the fire, she details both wartime atrocities and her own halting attempt to destroy a single paperback in the name of research. While arson likely caused the Central Library fire, the primary suspect, Harry Peak, variously described as a fabulist and an uncontrolled liar, was never charged.

In the end, Orlean is writing about the perpetual rebirth of libraries, whether from the ashes or technological imperatives. The nitty-gritty may hit New Yorkers as a bit West Coast-centric, but maybe that will inspire someone in the five boroughs to write a loving history of their own library system.

IF YOU GO

Susan Orlean is in conversation with Paul Holdengräber on Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. at the New York Public Library' Stephen A. Schwarzman Building | 476 Fifth Ave. | tickets $10-$40 at nypl.org

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