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Publisher's Summary

Susan Orlean, hailed as a “national treasure” by The Washington Post and the acclaimed best-selling author of Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief, reopens the unsolved mystery of the most catastrophic library fire in American history and delivers a dazzling love letter to a beloved institution - our libraries. 

On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual false alarm. As one fireman recounted later, “Once that first stack got going, it was good-bye, Charlie.” The fire was disastrous: It reached 2,000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than 30 years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library - and if so, who?  

Weaving her lifelong love of books and reading with the fascinating history of libraries and the sometimes eccentric characters who run them, award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author Susan Orlean presents a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling story as only she can. With her signature wit, insight, compassion, and talent for deep research, she investigates the legendary Los Angeles Public Library fire to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives. 

To truly understand what happens behind the stacks, Orlean visits the different departments of the LAPL, encountering an engaging cast of employees and patrons and experiencing alongside them the victories and struggles they face in today’s climate. She also delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from a metropolitan charitable initiative to a cornerstone of national identity. She reflects on her childhood experiences in libraries; studies fire and attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; and reexamines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the library more than 30 years ago. Along the way, she reveals how these buildings provide much more than just books - and that they are needed now more than ever.

Filled with heart, passion, and unforgettable characters, The Library Book is classic Susan Orlean and an homage to a beloved institution that remains a vital part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country and culture.

©2018 Susan Orlean (P)2018 Simon & Schuster

What members say

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  • Monchi
  • Edmonds, WA United States
  • 11-17-18

SLOW

This was a tough one for me and I love books, libraries, books about libraries...etc. The book rambles like a student’s report on a local fire. There are a few bits of biblio trivia that are interesting, but IMO not enough to warrant reading the book. Spoiler alert: there is no resolution. It ends as it began: fire in library, who did it?

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Excellent Book and Performance!

Occasionally got tired of hearing Dewey Decimal numbers at chapter headings but it does provide clues to what’s ahead... good but a bit gimmicky. The writing is wonderfully descriptive of people and places, as she has done before. A book lover’s treat but much more: urban history (and myth); LA’s light and darks sides; a lesson in sociopathology. Enjoy.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Makes me want to get a library card

Thank you for this book, Ms Orlean. Libraries do not need to be forgotten.
Compelling story and very well written. Loved it.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • P.
  • 12-10-18

Beautiful paean to life, libraries and librarians

I am a librarian, and this book means the world to me in giving a real and deep perspective to who we are, why we love our careers and what libraries mean to the world, but particularly to a free and open democratic republic. Susan Orlean, Thank you! Your mother should be delighted.

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    5 out of 5 stars

fascinating history from an excellent writer

This is a book for library and book lovers. excellent research , first-class storytelling, and a look into the working lives of librarians and libraries. I highly recommend this book.

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    3 out of 5 stars

A book about books

What's more fun to read than a book about books? But it's also a book about Los Angeles, libraries, librarians, library patrons, architecture, women's rights, AIDS, and occasionally what's supposed to be its subject - the Los Angeles Central Library fire of 1986. There doesn't seem to be an organizing principal, just a lot of wonderful stories about unforgettable people. But I was always happy to be reading whatever she wanted to write about.

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Clever narration and tale of the LA library fire.

Lots of interesting data. Liked authors narrative style Have read and liked “The Orchid Thief”

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Such a book nerd joy!

Loved reading this. Will read again and again whenever I feel bookish. I actually liked the book titles at the start of each chapter.

The author is definitely a writer first, not a narrator. But I noticed if I play it at 1.5 speed it was great and didn't bother me anymore.

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if you know and love libraries you will love this

if you don't know much about libraries, you will learn a lot. well done! I highly recommend this book.

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Thoroughly enjoyed it.

My wife is a library director in a local town and involved with the library system at a state level. She’d often come home telling me of this or that event or issue that happened at the library, or about this or that local program currently in play at her library, or help me to better understand definitions of various book classifications. I’d hear many of the same words in this book and just had to smile as I listened.

This is a great book that not only tells the story of the fire and its aftermath; but, includes very fascinating histories and facts about books and libraries.