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'The Library Book' review: Susan Orlean investigates fire at LA Central

Susan Orlean, author of

Susan Orlean, author of "The Library Book." Credit: Noah Fecks

THE LIBRARY BOOK, by Susan Orlean. Simon & Schuster, 317 pp., $28.

Anyone reading this review no doubt regards libraries as sacred spaces, temples of enlightenment as essential to civilization as the rule of law. So the thought of a library consumed by flames provokes almost as much horror as a murder.

On April 29, 1986, a fire at the Los Angeles Central Library burned out of control for seven hours. A perfect storm of fuel and oxygen, with temperatures reaching 2,000 degrees, this was the biggest fire in L.A. history and the worst ever experienced by any American library. Some 400,000 books were destroyed, and 700,000 more were damaged.

Ironically, the complete works of Ray Bradbury, author of the book-burning classic “Fahrenheit 451,” who never attended college but regarded the Central Library as “his university,” were reduced to ashes.

Almost immediately, arson was suspected. Investigators eventually fingered a sole suspect. Harry Peak was a handsome, young charmer who dreamed of a career in movies, despite zero acting talent. Instead, he drifted from one menial job to another while bragging of hanging out with the likes of Burt Reynolds. His only real talent, according to New Yorker magazine writer Susan Orlean, was as “a storyteller, a yarn-spinner, and an agile liar.”

To his buddies in the suburbs, Harry boasted that he had set the fire, then recanted, and eventually offered multiple versions of what he was doing that day. He was, Orlean writes, “eager to please, anxious to entertain, hungry to be noticed.”

For Orlean, author of “The Orchid Thief" and other deftly constructed works of nonfiction, the fire and its aftermath form the dramatic centerpiece for “The Library Book,” which becomes a loving homage to libraries everywhere.

Still, she keeps a steady eye on Central, a huge institution with many departments and employees, much the way Julie Salomon did in her fine study “Hospital.” Following an “open stacks” approach to her subject, Orlean wanders around to chat with circulation clerks, children’s librarians and the head of security. Those with seniority, recalling the fire, choke up. Some books, they point out, still smell of smoke.

Not surprisingly, all of these people are book lovers. Yet, Orlean notes, “there are a lot of surprising things” in a library this big. For instance, Central owns collections of L.A. restaurant menus and orchestral scores, not to mention fruit-crate labels. Private study carrels, she’s informed, had to be discontinued because of their use for sexual encounters. Patrons bringing every sort of eccentricity with them, like obsessions with flying saucers, have to be served as well as serious scholars.

Orlean not only strolls around the building but hopscotches back and forth though time. She’s a droll storyteller eager to show the human face of the library. Not all the faces are honorable. Charles Lummis, its chief administrator from 1905 through 1910, was a flamboyant Harvard dropout and journalist who threw wild parties, had many affairs and was often absent from the job. He hired a friend, C.J.K. Jones, whose expertise was in citrus fruit cultivation, dubbing him “The Human Encyclopedia.”

Orlean is more dubious: “He had a habit of tapping his forehead after being asked a question, as if he had to jar the answer loose from a storage bin in his brain.”      

In today’s library, the author has nothing but respect for the brain of C.J. Moon, a deaf autistic youth. Long fascinated by maps, C.J. volunteers his precise and exacting intelligence to index the library’s thousands of maps, historic and contemporary, that trace the growth of L.A. from slumbering town to sprawling megacity.  

At times, Orlean’s ever-shifting focus gives the book the feel of a random hodgepodge. And sometimes it’s downright silly, as when she burns a book to imagine what an arsonist experiences.

The writing, however is unfailingly fine. Here, for example, is her pithy description of L.A.: “I thought of Los Angeles as a radiant doughnut, rimmed by milky ocean and bristling mountains, with a big hole in the middle.”

Ultimately, after consulting arson experts, Orlean can’t conclude whether Peak set the fire, or whether it might have been an accident. Though authorities tried to pin guilt on him, he was never brought to trial, for lack of evidence, and died in 1993.

Looking to the future, Orlean refuses to eulogize libraries. Instead, she offers a tribute. Alongside the current head of the L.A. system, she imagines a long life for the rebuilt Central Library, as “a combination of a people’s university, a community hub, and an information base, happily partnered with the Internet.”       

Susan Orlean discusses ‘The Library Book’

WHEN | WHERE Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 7 p.m., New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Celeste Bartos Forum, 476 Fifth Ave., Manhattan

INFO $40, 917-275-6975,

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday, Nov. 27, at 7 p.m., Sachem Public Library, 150 Holbrook Rd., Holbrook

INFO Free, 631-588-5024,

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