Los Angeles Times Book Club reads ‘The Library Book’

Author Susan Orlean at L.A.'s Central Library.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Just in time for summer reading, the Los Angeles Times Book Club has chosen “The Library Book” as our first community read and will host a June 25 forum with bestselling author Susan Orlean.

Join us as we explore Orlean’s bestseller, a whodunit about the mysterious 1986 fire that gutted Los Angeles’ landmark Central Library.

The author of “The Orchid Thief” and other nonfiction titles, Orlean stumbled on the topic for her latest book during a visit to the downtown library. Her tour guide mentioned that some books still smell like smoke decades after the fire. “The fire. What fire?” she asked.

Orlean spent six years digging into that question, as she reinvestigated the largest library fire in U.S. history. The blaze destroyed 400,000 books, damaged 700,000 others and closed the library for seven years.

“The Library Book” brings to life legendary characters from the library’s past and present, and shadows a Hollywood wannabe who admitted setting the fire, then changed his account again and again.


Orlean also re-creates the rescue effort by hundreds of Angelenos who raced to the stacks on April 29, 1986 to save unburned books from being lost to smoke and water damage. Volunteers worked round-the-clock for three days.

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“They formed a human chain, passing the books hand over hand from one person to the next, through the smoky building and out the door,” Orlean writes. “It was as if, in this urgent moment, the people of Los Angeles formed a living library.”

“The Library Book” has been on the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List for more than 30 weeks and is one of the most-requested titles by readers at county libraries this year.

“The book does what Susan Orlean does magnificently well: dive into a topic that most people would not immediately on the surface think is fascinating and multidimensional, and she just sort of peels it back,” says Los Angeles city librarian John Szabo.

Orlean says the most revelatory part of working on “The Library Book” was discovering the history of Los Angeles as a “city of readers and writers and library goers.”


“It’s a place that’s got an incredibly rich literary history that is as luminous as its Hollywood history,” she says in a recent interview with The Times. “But people don’t know that as much.”

What’s L.A. reading? Our habits are as diverse as the city itself »

Building on the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, The Times has launched a community book club that keeps the conversation going year-round. Every month we’ll share a book, publish stories exploring the topic and invite you to read along. Then we’ll host an event with the author and invite you to join that too.

Orlean will join the Los Angeles Times Book Club on June 25 at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Barnsdall Art Park. She will be in conversation with Times Deputy Managing Editor Julia Turner.

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Times staff writer Maria L. La Ganga contributed to this report.