What happens when you set a book on fire? Susan Orlean tested it out in her California backyard. First it smokes, then flares, and then in a poof the book is gone enveloped in seconds leaving sooty ashes floating through the air.
On April 28th, 1986 the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library caught fire and burned with a magical power, fueled by the written word and confined and narrow ceilings and shelving, for seven hours. The fire was finally extinguished after millions of gallons of water had been expended and holes had been knocked in the building. Who would set such a fire? Fingers seem to point to chronic liar but the other culprits are numerous.
Orlean uses the mystery of the fire to drive forward her non-fiction narrative. She deftly changes between the wild history of the LA Public Library, the history of the building itself, the inner details of the many and varied library departments, and the mystery of the fire and the search of a culprit. The drama in all of these areas is amazing. The newspaper headlines wild. The directions the Library Board decides to take system often protested and unreasonable. Yet, the library drives forward, ever expanding and finding new ways to serve the population of LA.
This is a love story and libraries and their mission are at the heart of this beautifully bound and written book.