Susan Orlean had never burned a book before. The idea was repulsive to her, calling up images of Nazis tossing Torahs into the flames. But she wanted to know what it felt like to watch a book ignite, writhe in brittle waves and blow away. So there she was, putting a match to her copy of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” “It was as if the book had exploded,” she writes, feeling overwhelmed by “the realization of how fast a thing full of human stories can be made to disappear.”
Orlean, a longtime New Yorker writer, has been captivating us with human stories for decades, and her latest book is a wide-ranging, deeply personal and terrifically engaging investigation of humanity’s bulwark against oblivion: the library.
At the center of “The Library Book” is a seven-hour fire that raged through the Los Angeles Central Library on April 29, 1986, destroying or damaging more than a million books. In one of those weird coincidences that Orlean always manages to spot, a library official was meeting with the fire department that very morning to consider finally adding sprinklers to the building. When the smoke alarm went off, none of the 200 or so employees panicked. Given the old wiring and the unreliable systems, they were used to it. “The fire alarm had come to possess all the shock value of a clown horn,” Orlean writes. Even the first responders — who didn’t have a map of the building’s dark, circuitous hallways — assumed that it was a false alarm. And when firefighters finally noticed smoke along a shelf of novels, they couldn’t contact the command post; the library’s thick concrete walls blocked radio signals.
“At first, the smoke in the Fiction stacks was as pale as onionskin,” Orlean writes. “Then it deepened to dove gray. Then it turned black. It wound around Fiction A through L, curling in lazy ringlets. It gathered into soft puffs that bobbed and banked against the shelves like bumper cars. Suddenly, sharp fingers of flame shot through the smoke and jabbed upward. More flames erupted. The heat built. The temperature reached 451 degrees and the books began smoldering. Their covers burst like popcorn.”
That conflagration — the largest library disaster in American history — is the furnace at the center of Orlean’s story, which is fueled by regular additions of memoir, biography, history and science. In one particularly sobering chapter, she reminds us, “People have been burning libraries for nearly as long as they’ve been building libraries.” The number of books deliberately consigned to the flames is in the billions. “I sometimes find it hard to believe there are any books left in the world.”
But amid such gloom is much light. As a narrator, Orlean moves like fire herself, with a pyrotechnic style that smolders for a time over some ancient bibliographic tragedy, leaps to the latest technique in book restoration and then illuminates the story of a wildly eccentric librarian. Along the way, we learn how libraries have evolved, responded to depressions and wars, and generally thrived despite a constant struggle for funds. Over the holidays, every booklover in America is going to give or get this book.
As she did in her 1998 bestseller, “The Orchid Thief,” Orlean brings us along as she tries to understand the mercurial figure at the center of a crime. Harry Peak was a good-looking goofball with delusions of Hollywood stardom. He was also a liar of the pants-on-fire variety. He fibbed reflexively about everything, about his television success, his friendship with Burt Reynolds, his luncheon with Cher. But when he bragged to friends that he’d started the fire at the Los Angeles Central Library, he became the prime suspect in a criminal investigation involving the destruction of millions of dollars of city property.
Orlean takes us along as she interviews Peak’s relatives and friends, reads through newspaper stories and investigators’ reports, and sifts for truth among the ashes. But what’s even more fascinating is her search through the L.A. library’s distant past. With a great eye for telling and quirky detail, she presents a vast catalogue of remarkable characters, such as Mary Jones, the first L.A. library head to graduate from a library school. Hired in 1900, Jones was also a pioneer in the development of a racially diverse collection — and she recruited black librarians. In 1905, the board decided that it would be better for a completely unqualified man to take over, but nevertheless she persisted, setting off the Great Library War, which swelled to include thousands of protesters in Los Angeles and around the country. Her eventual replacement walked to L.A. from Ohio, used an actual branding iron to mark offensive books and kept meticulous records of his more than 50 extramarital affairs. There is no shhhh-ing in this book.
Even the more recent events that Orlean describes feel like they’ve been misshelved from the fantasy section. One chapter describes the L.A. library’s 24-hour telethon in 1987, hosted by a cigar-smoking Pentecostal preacher and attended by the likes of Angie Dickinson, Henry Kissinger and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Charlton Heston read from “Moby-Dick.”
Inevitably, the story of the city’s great library is woven into the story of the city itself as its population expanded rapidly, placing more complex demands on the staff. Orlean explores the ongoing challenge that homelessness poses for all libraries, and she profiles inspiring librarians determined to help the most desperate and disenfranchised people in America. “Because the boundary between society and the library is porous,” she writes, “nothing good is kept out of the library, and nothing bad. Often, at the library, society’s problems are magnified.”
If the spine of “The Library Book” seems strained to contain so much diverse material, that variety is also what makes this such a constant pleasure to read. And, obviously, to write. Orlean speaks movingly about her late mother, who introduced her to the library in Cleveland and instilled in her a love for these cathedrals of learning and art that contain “the looping, unending story of who we are.”
“This is why I wanted to write this book,” she explains, “to tell people about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.”
You can’t help but finish “The Library Book” and feel grateful that these marvelous places belong to us all.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com. On Oct. 25 at 7 p.m., Susan Orlean will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
By Susan Orlean
Simon & Schuster. 336 pp. $28