Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin) doubles as an investigative reporter and an institutional historian in this sprawling account of the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Central Public Library. On April 29, 1986, just before 11 a.m., a fire broke out in the stacks of the main branch and burned for seven hours, destroying 400,000 books and damaging hundreds of thousands more. Harry Peak, the man police believed started the fire, was arrested but never charged. Orlean's investigation into the fire-Was it arson? Why would Peak, a struggling actor and frequent patron of the library, want to burn it down?-leads her down the library's aisles of history, as she seeks out books on the flawed science of arson forensics along with titles from California serial killer Richard Ramirez's reading list to better understand the minds of psychopaths. Along the way, she introduces readers to California Public Library system staffers, among them Arin Kasparian, on the circulation desk; Kren Malone, director of the main branch; and Glen Creason, a senior librarian whose tenure spans "the fire [and] the AIDS crisis, which killed 11 librarians." Midway through, Orlean reveals her own motivation for her return to long-form journalism: her mother's dementia has made her acutely aware of how memories are doomed to be forgotten unless they're recorded. This is a persuasive reminder of the importance of libraries, whose shared spaces house historical treasures built with the common good in mind. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review
An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to "tell about a place I love that doesn't belong to me but feels like it is mine." It's the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski's "wondrous place," and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged "for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degreesmore than one million books were burned or damaged." Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, "We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell.It was surreal." Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, "the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books." She continues, "destroying a culture's books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened." The author also examines the library's important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a "solace in the Depression," and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak's guilt but remains "confounded." Maybe it was just an accident after all.Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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