The Library Book

"The Library Book," By Susan Orlean

THE LIBRARY BOOK. By Susan Orlean. Simon & Schuster. 317 pages. $28.

A library is a “gathering pool of narratives,” writes Susan Orlean in the opening pages of “The Library Book,” a meandering, companionable volume that is many things at once: a crime investigation, a memoir, a social history of libraries in the 20th and 21st centuries and a tribute to the characters who make them hum.

Orlean pins her narrative on a 1986 fire that ignited Central Library in downtown Los Angeles, an underreported disaster that was upstaged by the Chernobyl meltdown the same week. Orlean is a natural storyteller who, in reporting one event, can’t help but follow all the fruitful detours that present themselves.

Just before 11 a.m. on the day of the fire, a smoke detector went off. The building emptied in just eight minutes, but no one panicked because alarm misfires were common. Firefighters discovered smoke in the fiction stacks, turning from dove grey to black and gathering into “soft puffs that ... banked against the shelves like bumper cars.” Books began smoldering, their covers bursting like popcorn. The fire burned for seven hours and 38 minutes; temperatures reached 2,000 degrees, then 2,050. The building stayed hot for five days.

Orlean revels in the details. In all, 400,000 books were destroyed by the fire. An additional 700,000 were badly damaged by smoke and water. When a conservator urged them to freeze the damaged goods because mold spores bloom within two days, a local fish processing plant agreed to accept them. Periodically, Orlean checks back in with these frozen volumes, until they’re restored to the shelves.

So, how did the fire start? Early on, reports started circulating about a suspect person hanging around on the morning of the alarm. That person acquires a name: Harry Peake. The juiciest (or potentially so) aspect of “The Library” is also the saddest and most inconclusive.

Peake was a good-looking, wannabe actor who craved attention. Likable and easy to please, he was also a constant liar, a feature that hurt him when he was arrested for setting the fire. His story was in constant flux, and he manufactured alibis with abandon. Orlean likes people, delights in their idiosyncrasies, warms to their dreams, forgives their failings. Harry Peake, who died long before she knew of his case, gets the empathetic Orlean treatment.

He was always a suspect but never charged for the crime and eventually filed and won a meager civil suit against the city. The newspaper reported a “post-fire malaise” among staff members, but the one-time suspect fared worse than anyone.

Orlean captures the texture of her central event by alternating close-up and wide-range shots. On the most intimate, close-up level, her immersion in the L.A. fire calls up memories of childhood and the enchanted role libraries played. There are many places to grow up. Susan Orlean grew up in libraries. Her ongoing interest in the Central Library fire is an offshoot of her love for the Bertram Woods library branch in Shaker Heights.

Several times a week, she and her mother would go to the library together. Orlean describes her childhood visits as “dreamy frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than when I arrived.” On the way home, they talked about pacing themselves so the books would last, and about the beauty of the librarian.

Orlean’s adventures in the Central Library are a kind of homecoming to her. Her research into the history of Central Library yields a smashing cast of characters, dominated by a string of bold and capable women who served in the late-19th and early-20th centuries at the whim of the male board.

Mary Jones, the first L.A. librarian to hold a library degree, was pushed out because the board thought a man would be in everyone’s best interest. They found a doozy of a man: Charles Fletcher Lummis, who had walked from Ohio to California in 1895 to work at the newspaper. Midway through is journey, Lummis swapped out his knickers for a pair of buckskin leggings. Lummis would later write, “I was a Scholar and a Frontiersman, and I went to the roots of that Sissy Library and made it within two years an Institution of Character, a He-Library...”

How surprised Lummis would be to stroll the halls of his He-Library with Susan Orlean.

In the present day, Orlean praises what she calls “the publicness of the public library.” Her cheery vision spotlights a vibrant space, with something for everyone: Teen 'Scape, with splashy graphics, bean-bag chairs and a librarian who once played in a punk band; Info Now, a service catering to lonely callers who want a voice to answer their random questions; The Source, a social services networking center.

Orlean writes at the end of her book that she is buoyed by being at the library in a space dedicated to stories: “This is why I wanted to write the book, to tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine. ... All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen.”

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.