The Library Book reviewed: an arson fire, the expanded role of libraries, and eccentric librarians

The Library Book is about an arson fire, the expanded role of libraries, and eccentric librarians.

How good is The Library Book? It’s unquestionably one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in recent years. Susan Orlean has a magical way with prose, and she turns what could easily be a monumentally boring subject into a captivating tale. Even if you’re not a passionate devotee of public libraries, you’ll be enchanted by this beautifully researched history of the Los Angeles Public Library, the eccentric librarians who have sometimes run it—and the fire that nearly destroyed it more than thirty years ago.


The Library Book by Susan Orlean (2018) 310 pages

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)


An arson fire, the expanded role of libraries, and eccentric librarians

Orlean appears to have devoted a prodigious amount of time and effort to researching The Library Book. It’s peppered with accounts of her interviews with former and current Los Angeles librarians, and she lays out the institution’s history of more than a century and a half in loving detail. She serves up the often outrageous figures who served as chief librarians in loving detail. Indeed, if you have a picture in your mind of librarians as a dour and colorless sort, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the eccentricities and antics of some of those who helmed the LA library through the years. And you’ll learn a great deal about how much time librarians spend doing things that may be only indirectly related to books.

The Library Book is a true crime story

In a sense, The Library Book is a true crime story. Orlean devotes considerable attention to the details of the fire that nearly destroyed LA’s Central Library in 1986. You can almost feel the heat and smell the smoke of that fire, so faithfully has she recoded its progress. And her account of the arson investigation is rich with details. She zeroes in on the only suspect identified by the police: a young unemployed actor named Harry Peak. Peak was briefly jailed, and arson investigators were convinced that he set the fire. However, the district attorney, somewhat controversially, declined to prosecute on the grounds that the evidence was insufficient to convict. (The DA was otherwise occupied at the time with the notorious McMartin Preschool abuse trial, the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history.)

If you enjoy reading, you’ll love The Library Book. Those eccentric librarians are worth the price alone.

For further reading

You’ll find this book on The 40 best books of the decade from 2010-19.

You’ll also find this book in good company on my post, Pandemic got you down? Read these books!

You might also be interested in Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles—An impressionistic history of libraries and librarians through the ages.

And if nonfiction rocks your boat, try:

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.

Spread The Word!