Prepare to dive into the inner workings of a library

The possibilities seem endless.

Row upon row of books awaits you, each representing a fact to learn, a crime to solve, a future to visit, a place to explore or a life to share. Your local library holds old tales and new stories but in “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean, it can hold a community together, too.

The fire alarm was known to be faulty at the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL). It was always going off for no reason; patrons knew it, as did staff. So when the alarm screamed again on the morning of April 28, 1986, most people there vacated the library with an air of unconcerned been-there-done-this.

Within minutes, it became obvious that this was no false alarm.

Because of how the library had been constructed decades prior, what started as a small fire in a small area soon became a conflagration. Boosted by architecture, the fire fed on itself until, mere hours later, millions of books, manuscripts, priceless documents, maps, collector’s items and operating equipment were lost. It was the largest library fire at that time in the United States.

Throughout its existence, the LAPL had seen its share of history within the city. It had become a beloved home for bookworms, a resource for the homeless and a place for learning. Recognizing what its loss could represent, Los Angelinos sprang into action, filmmakers made donations, citizens held fundraisers and institutions around the world showed their support. Alas, many of the materials were lost forever.

In the days after the fire, tips poured in and one of them led investigators to Harry Peak, a charming gay “people pleaser” who was also unreliable. Peak ultimately confessed to the crime of arson.

And then he unconfessed. In months to come, in fact, he changed his story as easily as he changed clothes, baffling authorities. Was Harry Peak a firebug? Or was he just a guy who craved attention and would stretch a story to get it?

Here’s why you’re going to fall in love with author Susan Orlean: in her quest for full knowledge on this subject, she decided to burn a book (gasp!), a task that gave her knife-sharp anguish that only a booklover can know. Indeed, much of this account will hurt your soul, if you’re someone who loves books.

But that’s not all you’ll find in “The Library Book.”

While crime solving itself is fascinating, Orlean takes her book to a most satisfying next step and reading it is like wearing a piece of jewelry: the story of the LAPL fire and its aftermath is the gold at the base, holding everything together — irresistible, but not quite enough. Orlean’s curiosity for and explanations of the inner workings of a large library are the jewels. They are what make this book sparkle.

Book lovers and library users should read it for its behind-the-scenes not-so-secrets. This book seems meant just for you who adore the written word, so clear your calendar and open “The Library Book.”

You know where to find a copy.

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Gretchen Leigh is a stay-at-home mom who lives in a neighborhood near you. You can read more of her writing on her website livingwithgleigh.com. To see her columns come to life, follow her on Facebook at Living with Gleigh by Gretchen Leigh.
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