On April 29, 1986, the Los Angeles Central Public Library caught fire and burned for over seven hours. By the time the fire was extinguished, over 400,000 books were destroyed and almost double that number were damaged. This book explores that event but also lays tribute to the history of that library (and others!) and the author’s personal memories of her early library experiences, along with the investigation of what caused the fire. It was thought to be arson and the primary suspect was a man named Harry Peak, an unemployed actor.
I’d never heard about this fire (the author posits as to why not), the largest and worst library fire ever, so naturally I was intrigued by that factoid alone. What I loved about this book was the overwhelming wealth of information about the past librarians, and history of the Central Library; other notable library histories globally and connections to world events; and the evolution of fire investigation and how it related to this event. In a word, it was all fascinating. Each librarian left an indelible imprint on the library, their contribution to a vibrant institution.
While the transitions between the topics were often awkward, I enjoyed that there were shifts as it kept things interesting. The weaving of personal stories, colorful librarian histories and the community connections made this something special.
I listened to the book, narrated by the author, and though I liked it, I believe I would have loved the book more if I’d read it, giving me a better opportunity to more slowly digest these stories and facts. Orlean did a good job in her reading and I’m not certain a professional narrator would have changed the experience. It’s a lot of wonderful information that I found enlightening but difficult to accept how little I knew about our libraries and the issues they have always faced.
If you love books and have any kind of connection to libraries, physical or digital, you really must read this book. It evokes a strong reaction as your personal memories and attachments will also arise and consume you. You’ll have to form your own conclusion, though, regarding whether or not Harry Peak set that library on fire.
By the way, I borrowed this from my digital library🥰
- Release Date: October 16, 2018
- Narrator: Author
- Audio Length: 12 hours, 9 minutes
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio