Reopening the unsolved mystery of one of the most catastrophic library fires in history.
Susan Orlean is a staff writer for The New Yorker and has written several books, one of which, The Orchid Thief,was made into a film in 2002 as Adaptation and garnered an Academy Award nomination for Meryl Streep. I can readily identify with her early memories of visiting the local library which, for me as a child, was a magical place. My love affair with books and libraries continues to this day and I was sad to read about the 1986 fire at the main Los Angeles Public Library.
But the fire really only serves as the weft of the book as the author weaves in the warp of the history of the library; its building and its, at times, eccentric librarians; the even stranger pastor who led a telethon to raise funds to rebuild the library; and Harry Peak – a true Hollywood dreamer – who was suspected of setting the fire; plus the diverse users and uses of the library today.
Orlean writes that the Senegalese expression used when someone dies is ‘their library has burned’ which wonderfully sums up the great loss of the knowledge and experience when we die. How much greater is the loss when a library burns? The reader is reminded that burning libraries has been used as an act of war for centuries as the victors’ aim is to destroy the collective memory and culture of the vanquished.
Harry Peak was never charged with burning the library although the fire officials interviewed by the author remained convinced he set the fire. Orlean wisely leaves the reader to make up their own mind whether Peak was an arsonist or merely an attention seeking fantasist, as demonstrated by his ever changing statements when questioned about the fire.
The author has a lively and eminently readable style, painting wonderful word portraits of characters such as head librarian Charles Lummis appointed in 1905 – much to the chagrin of Mary Jones then the current head. For example, Lummis introduced what he called the ‘Literary Pure Food Act’. Books he considered pseudoscience were branded with a skull and crossbones poison symbol and included a bookmark referring readers to what he considered more scientific books.
At times, the flow of the narrative becomes difficult to follow as we move from the events of the fire, to the history of the library, back to the fire, the difficulties in actually building the library, historical libraries and librarians to today’s librarians and then again back to the fire with the arson suspect Harry Peak’s strange fantasy life.
While this does detract a little from the otherwise fascinating history of the library, the book is enthralling and a great read for any lover of libraries and books.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: January 2019