The Library Book

Tonight my book club is discussing The Library Book, by Susan Orlean. It’s a fascinating account of a fire that devastated the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, destroying a million or so books.

The describes the fire in breathtaking prose, and then recounts the author’s investigation into its causes. The fire department quickly determined that the fire had been set, and clues led police to an aspiring young actor, Harry Peak, who actually told friends that day that he was the arsonist. His story changed every time he was questioned, confusing investigators and making it difficult to bring a case against him, because police lacked anything more than circumstantial evidence.

In an effort to understand the mindset of a person who would intentionally burn books — and to describe just how quickly a book burns — Orlean even burned a book herself, though the idea horrified her. The book she chose: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Of course.

In exploring the events that led up to the fire, Orlean also gives a fascinating account of the Los Angeles library’s history, and of the role of libraries and librarians in our society.

If you’re a book lover, this is a must-read.

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