12 min read ⌚
On the morning of April 29, 1986, “the most difficult fire in the history of Los Angeles” destroyed over one million priceless books in the Los Angeles Public Library.
Susan Orlean’s The Library Book tells the full story.
Until it’s not anymore a story about a fire – but a story about libraries and books and memory and what it means to be a human being.
Who Should Read “The Library Book”? And Why?
If you love the smell of napalm… oh, sorry – old books in the morning; if you prefer a cozy afternoon with a novel tucked under a blanket to a crazy night at a techno club; if you’ve got an allergy to dust, and yet can’t help visiting the local library at least once a week ever since your student days – then The Library Book will strike a few chords in your heart.
“A dazzling love letter to a beloved institution” and “an investigation into one of its greatest mysteries” (The Washington Post), The Library Book is the book for every book lover out there; especially the hundreds of thousands of members of the Los Angeles Public Library.
About Susan Orlean
Susan Orlean is an American journalist and bestselling author, hailed as “national treasure” by several publications.
Orlean has been a staff writer for The New York Times ever since 1992 and has authored eight books so far, including The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, My Kind of Place, and Rin Tin Tin.
However, she is best known for her second book, The Orchid Thief, which was adapted by Charlie Kaufmann for Spike Jonze’s Academy Award-winning film Adaptation, where Orlean was played by none other than Meryl Streep.
Find out more at http://www.susanorlean.com/.
“The Library Book PDF Summary”
“In Senegal,” writes Susan Orlean at the end of Chapter 8 of The Library Book, “the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned.”
And then she goes on:
When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it – with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited – it takes on a life of its own.
Now, if each individual is a private library, then actual libraries are nothing less than the DNA of a whole culture, if not the human civilization itself.
And that’s why Susan Orlean’s extraordinary book, The Library Book, turns from an investigation of the great 1986 Los Angeles Public Library fire into “an exercise in mining her intense feelings” for the subject of books and libraries (to quote Michael Lewis’ review for The New York Times).
It’s almost as if she uses the fire, Lewis says, as a MacGuffin, “a trick for luring the reader into a subject into which the reader never imagined he’d be lured: the history and present life of the Los Angeles Central Library.”
“Susan Orlean’s new book,” says an NPR review, “is like exploring the stacks of a library, where something unexpected and interesting can be discovered on every page.”
Here are the bits which impressed us the most.
The “Extraordinary and Unforgettable” Fire
Unbeknownst to many at the time, April 29, 1986, was the day of “one of the biggest fires in the history of Los Angeles;” coincidentally, it was also “the single biggest library fire in the history of the United States.”
And it consumed large parts of the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles.
To this day, nobody knows what and why had caused it; but many LA firefighters still remember it the most uncommon and fiercest fire they ever had to face.
“It was a huge, furious fire that burned for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees,” informs us Orlean.
It wasn’t red and orange and yellow and black, but colorless and somewhere pale blue; it was so hot that it appeared icy; three decades later, Ron Hamel, then-captain in the fire department, remembers that everybody around him thought that they were looking at the bowels of hell.
More than fifty firefighters were injured while trying to put out the fire; over 400,000 books were completely and irretrievably destroyed; at least 700,000 more were substantially damaged.
And yet –
Even if you were living in LA at the time, you probably wouldn’t have heard much about this.
Because around the same time, about 10,000km to the east, a nuclear reactor melted down in Chernobyl, causing not only environmental concerns but also a stock market crash.
In fact, The New York Times didn’t even bother to mention to fire until a day after; and even then, it was just a brief story published on page A14, laying out the basic facts and sharing the opinions of a few local residents.
“The books burned,” writes Orlean, “while most of us were waiting to see if we were about to witness the end of the world.”
The Act of Burning Books
As we said above, nobody knows, to this day, who or what had caused the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library.
The main – and basically only – suspect was a struggling attention-seeking actor named Harry Peak; but he was let go soon after being imprisoned due to lack of evidence.
During the fire, everything in the Fiction section from A through L was destroyed; consequently, that included all of Ray Bradbury’s books, including the one you’re inclined to think about every time book burning is mentioned, Fahrenheit 451.
Orlean uses the fire and the loss of over one million invaluable books to ask some important questions about the nature of books and about the act of burning them.
If it was Harry Peak or another arsonist who had caused the fire, why did he do it?
Burning books is an inefficient way to conduct a war since books and libraries have no military value, but it is a devastating act. Destroying a library is a kind of terrorism. People think of libraries as the safest and most open places in society. Setting them on fire is like announcing that nothing, and nowhere, is safe. The deepest effect of burning books is emotional. When libraries burn, the books are sometimes described as being ‘wounded’ or as ‘casualties,’ just as human beings would be.
And there’s a reason for that: humans, just as that Senegalese phrase quoted above suggests, are pretty much like books.
“Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory,” writes Orlean. “It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”
Building Libraries Is Not Unlike Building Civilizations
The Library Book is a love letter not only to the Los Angeles Public Library but to public libraries everywhere on the planet.
At least as far as Orlean is concerned, they are, in a way, not only the reason why we can call ourselves civilized but also the embodiment of hope, the symbol of the power of the human connection.
“The library is a whispering post,” says Orlean both poetically and powerfully:
You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen… Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage – the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come.
Orlean admits that after thinking about this, she realized that the very existence of The Library Book owes everything to this kind of reasoning.
We always write because we hope that we’ll be able “to tell a long-lasting story, to create something that endured, to be alive somehow as long as someone would read [our stories].”
In view of this, it’s not an exaggeration to say that libraries are our most powerful weapon against Death and Hate, the pinnacle of our attempt to create a global human civilization.
The Google of Days Past: Let’s Just Call the Library
When you have a dilemma or a question nowadays, you ask Google about it.
Well, until not that long ago, in similar cases, people had no choice but to contact libraries’ reference departments.
The one in LA’s Central Library was called SCAN, short for the Southern California Answering Network and was pretty popular both locally and nationally.
Here are some of the records:
• Patron call. Wanted to know how to say ‘The necktie is in the bathtub’ in Swedish. He was writing a script.
• Patron call asking whether it is necessary to rise if National Anthem is played on radio or television. Explained that one need only do what is natural and unforced; for instance, one does not rise while bathing, eating, or playing cards.
• Patron is a writer in Hebrew; wanted to create a pun between the word for Zion and the word for penis. We couldn’t find a term for penis, but the word copulate is mtsayen which helped her make her pun with tsion.
Even today, the phones in the library constantly ring: not everybody knows how to use the Internet.
Here’s a funny reaction overheard by Orlean just recently after one such call: “Why would someone call here and ask, ‘Which is more evil, grasshoppers or crickets?’”
A Few Interesting People
There are many exceptionally interesting people who populate the pages of The Library Book.
One of them Harry Peak, the guy accused of starting the fire. Tall, blond, and dimpled, Peak was nothing short of a fantasist, “a storyteller, a yarn-spinner, and an agile liar.”
He was so good and quick at imagining and fabricating stories about his life that, according to his sister, even his family didn’t believe a word he says.
Case in point: after admitting to starting the fire, Harry offered no fewer than seven different alibis; many firefighters believed none of them he was arrested but not indicted.
Here he is after his release from jail.
Gene Scott is another colorful character which appears on the pages of Orlean’s book, a Stanford Ph.D. and a pastor, “the most agnostic believer and the most believing agnostic.”
However, neither his cigar-smoking sermons backed by scantily clad women nor the telethon he organized to raise millions for the library’s reconstruction compares to one of LA’s early librarians, Mr. Charles Fletcher Lummis, “a journalist, poet, editor, historian, and adventurer.”
And, oh, so much more!
Read all about him at Wikipedia, but here are three things we couldn’t help but sharing with you now:
• The man wanted to improve the tastes of LA citizens; to do so, he hired a blacksmith to make “branding iron in the shape of a skull and crossbones” which he then used to brand the frontispiece of pseudoscientific books;
• He created a group of alt-librarians who are not “pompous asses;” he called the group The Bibliosmiles, aka “Librarians Who Are Nevertheless Human;” each member had a Bibliosmiles nickname; Lummis’ was “Grim Reality;”
• Outside the library, Lummis often organized lavish parties for writers at his house called El Alisal; yup, they included troubadours and prostitutes!
Key Lessons from “The Library Book”
1. The 1986 Los Angeles Public Library Fire
2. Books and Libraries, the Cultural DNA
3. How to Steal a Book: the Hollywood Edition
The 1986 Los Angeles Public Library Fire
On April 29, 1986, three days after the Chernobyl Disaster, the Central Public Library in Los Angeles caught fire, one of the biggest in the history of Los Angeles.
Since the library was built before architects knew enough about ventilation of heat and smoke, the fire was both difficult to put out and devastating.
“Almost every firefighter in Los Angeles was called upon to fight the fire,” and yet – it took them more than seven hours to put it out.
More than 50 firefighters were injured, and more than one million books were either destroyed or damaged.
Even though a wannabe actor was blamed for it – a certain Harry Peak – to this day, it is not known who or what had caused it.
Books and Libraries, the Cultural DNA
Remember Fahrenheit 451?
Of course you do: it’s Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, the most famous one treating the topic of book burning.
If you have read it – or watched Francois Truffaut’s adaptation – you know that by the end of the story, books and people become indistinguishable: to save the civilization from destruction, and build it anew when it becomes necessary, intellectuals have started memorizing important classics by heart.
Orlean highlights countless times the fact that this is more than a metaphor or a recipe for a new society:
Books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books. Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the continuity between its past and its future is ruptured. Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.
By the way – and suitably – Orlean uses a sentence from Fahrenheit 451 as an epigraph to her book: “And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering.”
How to Steal a Book: the Hollywood Edition
Among the many interesting stories inside Susan Orlean’s book, there’s one that really caught our attention.
Namely, it seems that, contrary to what you’d expect, the poor and the disillusioned weren’t the ones the library officials feared when it came to the subject of stealing books.
Fascinatingly enough – the greatest threat was Hollywood. “For years,” writes Orlean, “movie studios were major book-pinching culprits.”
Why would they do that?
Two main reasons:
#1. There was no Internet at the time, and the libraries were the only place where screenwriters could find material for their research;
#2. When you check out a book, there’s a due date to return it – and you don’t want scheduling conflicts which could cause you millions because of administration, do you?
How did they do it?
It was a simple scheme, involving two assistants, one of which would take a position outside a window with the other pitching the desired book out to window to his accomplice.
And this happened so often that the library had to hire an employee whose main job was to regularly visit film studios and get the stolen books back.
Also, the library had no choice but to wire shut all the windows most often used for the scheme.
Hollywood! Go figure!
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“The Library Book Quotes”The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever. Click To Tweet 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. Click To Tweet Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived. Click To Tweet Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory. Click To Tweet I have come to believe that books have souls—why else would I be so reluctant to throw one away? Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
There are two things you should know about us:
#1. We like books;
#2. We love libraries.
The Library Book kept reminding us why – from cover to cover.
Captivating, delightful, a constant pleasure to read, The Library Book is a heartfelt and moving masterpiece which, in the end, seems to be about everything but the LA Public Library fire: memory and books, mothers and daughters, our need to not be forgotten.
“You can’t help but finish The Library Book,” writes Ron Charles for The Washington Post, “and feel grateful that these marvelous places belong to us all.”
Indeed, you can’t.