Susan Orlean's new book is like exploring the stacks of a library, where something unexpected and interesting can be discovered on every page. The Library Book tells the story of the 1986 fire that damaged or destroyed more than one million books in Los Angeles' Central Library.
"The fire burned for seven hours," Orlean says. "It reached temperatures of 2,500 degrees. ... A lot of firefighters who I interviewed said it was by far the most challenging, frightening fire that they've ever confronted in their careers."
Orlean uses the loss and lore of that fire to tell the living, everyday story of a great civic institution that is becoming, in a digital age, perhaps even more vital. She says the fire reminded her of the proverb that when a person dies, it's as if a library has burned to the ground.
"A host of memories and stories and anecdotes that we store in our minds disappears when someone dies," she says. "It struck me as being a wonderful way of seeing why libraries feel like these big, collective brains — because they have the memories and stories of a whole culture inside them."
In addition to destroying and damaging books, the fire also claimed irreplaceable artifacts. The library was home to manuals for every make and model of car starting with the Ford Model T, Orlean says, and to puppets from a long-gone puppet theater. People see libraries as repositories for "the flotsam and jetsam of thinking and storytelling," she says.
The fire led to a seven-year closure of the Central Library which was devastating for the employees. "Many of them suffered terrible anxiety and depression over the idea that they were no longer serving their patrons," Orlean says. "The city hired a psychologist to meet with the librarians because they really were traumatized."
They were grieving not only the physical loss, but years and years of work. Librarians carefully curate the materials in their departments, Orlean says: "They build the collections from their own interests and knowledge. ... Many of them are books that can't be found anymore. So for these librarians it was absolutely devastating to see the books destroyed."
Investigators began to suspect arson, and focused their attention on a young man named Harry Peak. Tall and blond, he aspired to be an actor — stage fright aside — and, as Orlean says, "He really captured that desire and that questing for being noticed."
Peak gave no fewer than seven alibis for where he was the day of the fire. "He had an almost compulsive need to spin yarns," Orlean says. "Everything in his life became a story ... He had to somehow project himself into the middle of this dramatic event. ... He had many, many different versions of his whereabouts that day."
Peak was arrested but not indicted. "Many people in the city and many, many firefighters were absolutely convinced that he had started the fire," Orlean says, but nothing has ever been proven.
The Library Book isn't intended to solve the crime, but rather — to explore its story. Orlean isn't certain that this decades-old mystery will ever be resolved.
Monika Evstatieva and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Susan Orlean's new book is like an amble through the rooms and stacks of a library, where something unexpected and interesting can be discovered on any page. The library book begins with a fire in April 1986 that destroyed or damaged more than a million books at the Los Angeles Central Library. NPR covered the blaze. Here's Captain Tony DiDomenico of the LA Fire Department.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TONY DIDOMENICO: When you have those books, the papers so tightly compressed that once it starts burning, it burns with a tremendous amount of heat.
SIMON: Susan Orlean uses the loss and lore of that fire to tell us the living, everyday story of a great civic institution that's becoming, in a digital age, maybe even more vital. Susan Orlean, author of best-sellers that include "The Orchid Thief," joins us. Thanks so much for being with us.
SUSAN ORLEAN: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: Help us understand how extensive this fire was.
ORLEAN: The fire burned for seven hours. It reached temperatures of 2,500 degrees. It was, at one point, looked at as possibly an unstoppable fire. It was so hot. A lot of firefighters who I interviewed said it was by far the most challenging, frightening fire that they've ever confronted in their careers. Until very recently, it was the largest structural fire in the history of Los Angeles.
SIMON: The fire reminded you - I guess, a phrase that the many Senegalese have for death.
ORLEAN: It was an incredible phrase, which is, when someone dies, a library burns down, meaning the person's own host of memories and stories and anecdotes that we store in our minds disappears when someone dies. And it struck me as being a wonderful way of seeing why libraries feel like these big collective brains because they have the memories and stories of a whole culture inside them.
SIMON: We mentioned the more than a million books destroyed or damaged in Los Angeles. But you're also staggered to read in your book how much stuff there is in a great urban library - just stuff. What were some of the items lost in LA?
ORLEAN: Among the things that were lost in the fire, the library had every automobile manual for every make and model of car, starting with the Model T. Those all disappeared. Patents - the Gazette's recording all of the patents in the United States and Canada - those were all lost and artifacts like puppets from a famous puppet theater that existed in the '40s and '50s. People look at libraries as being these repositories of, I guess, what you would just say are the flotsam and jetsam of thinking and storytelling. And those end up in libraries.
SIMON: And to be sure, there was a human cost to the employees of the Los Angeles Public Library for the seven years it had been burned and was closed, wasn't there?
ORLEAN: It was devastating. This was the life's work of these librarians. We think of libraries as just somehow getting books, but it doesn't work like that. Librarians build the collection of their department. They choose the books from their own interests and knowledge. And when those disappear, you don't just go and click a button and replace them all. I mean, many of them are books that can't be found anymore.
So for these librarians, it was absolutely devastating to see the books destroyed. What I thought was really interesting is many of them suffered terrible anxiety and depression over the idea that they were no longer serving their patrons. And they - the city hired a psychologist to meet with the librarians because they really were traumatized.
SIMON: Investigators began to suspect arson and suspicions began to fall around a man named Harry Peak. With respect for Los Angeles, he struck me as a real LA figure.
ORLEAN: He really is, or I should say, was. He was a young man - good looking, blond, tall and inevitably, began dreaming that he would someday be an actor because if you live anywhere within the magnetic pull of Los Angeles, that comes to mind. He came to the city with no training as an actor. And in fact, he discovered he had stage fright. Sometimes, I think what he really dreamed of was not acting but living the way actors live, or at least in his imagination, having a glamorous life, having everything in your life just be larger than life.
SIMON: How many different versions of events did he eventually supply about his whereabouts that day and his actions?
ORLEAN: He had seven alibis, which is not necessarily recommended if you're...
ORLEAN: ...Trying to have (laughter) - if you're trying to convince people that you didn't commit a crime, it's usually good to stick with one.
SIMON: But they never could prosecute him, could they?
ORLEAN: He was arrested, but they never indicted him. But the story ended up getting very complicated because many people in the city and many, many firefighters were absolutely convinced that he had started the fire.
SIMON: You take us into the workings of the library today. And in this interconnected digital age, doesn't everybody have a library at their fingertips?
ORLEAN: Everybody has information at their fingertips, but a library also is a place. I think what I began to realize was that the emotions I felt about a library were partly because, oh, it's so exciting. There's so much great stuff here. But some of it was being in a place that I share with other people, and we're all looking for whatever it is that we're interested in at that moment. And there's something wonderful about that. There's also a lot of stuff that is not online. And that is going to remain true probably for eternity.
SIMON: And it's the original co-working space, too.
ORLEAN: That was the (laughter) - one of the things that I realized. There was a period of time when I was working on the book and I just couldn't work at home anymore, so I rented space in a co-working space. And then one day, I thought, I could do the same thing at the library and not pay. So I cancelled my lease and finished the book, working at the library.
SIMON: Susan Orlean - her new book, "The Library Book" - thanks so much for being with us.
ORLEAN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.