Column: Susan Orlean on the terrifying Los Angeles fire that made us love our libraries


The Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe likely blew it off the nation’s front pages, which is why the writer Susan Orlean, in New York, didn’t even hear about the great Los Angeles Central Library fire of April 1986 until after she moved to L.A. It was the biggest fire in the city’s history, and the biggest library fire in the nation. Four hundred thousand books were transmuted into smoke. Hundreds of thousands more were scorched by the fire, or sodden by firefighters’ water.

For years, the glamorous, overstuffed, underfunded Central Library had come just about this close to meeting the wrecking ball; there were warnings that you couldn’t have designed a better firetrap. Sure enough, the flames burned for nearly eight hours, burned so preternaturally hot that in places they were colorless. But the fire somehow provoked Los Angeles into a new civic spirit, and the downtown library – the place where Ray Bradbury and John Fante and Charles Bukowski met their muses – made a Hollywood comeback.

All of this nudged Orlean to write “The Library Book,” about the library fire, how it started, how it ended, and, in an age when we can carry a virtual library in our pockets, why we still carry the real ones so deeply in our spirits.

You were a newcomer to Los Angeles when you heard years later about the big library fire in 1986 and it prompted you to do this deep dive in your book into the nature of libraries as a civic, as a public institution.

I was toying with the idea of writing about a library without having anything further in terms of a focus. I was being given a tour of the downtown branch, which just on its own merit is so beautiful that I was completely smitten instantly.

But it was during that visit that I first heard about the fire, and I was absolutely fascinated. So, being compelled by the idea of writing about libraries in general and now suddenly having a story that had at its heart such a mystery, I found myself immediately diving in on all aspects, on the history of libraries, and the history of the L.A. library and the story of fire, on the history of burning books.

This book is a love story for people who love libraries; it is a history of libraries around the world, their evolution as civic and public institutions, as opposed to private scholarly resources. And it is also that mystery of who started the fire that consumed the Los Angeles Public Library. You look at a man named Harry Peak, the principal suspect.

Harry Peak in many ways is a kind of iconic Los Angeles figure. He was a young man who grew up near Riverside, was the handsomest kid in his class. He was a charmer and he also was a dreamer, somebody who imagined himself very much as somebody who was going to be a big star someday.

He had no training; there was nothing necessarily to suggest that he had any talent for being an actor. But he was someone who wanted to be part of whatever was dramatic and glamorous. And I think Los Angeles is filled with people like Harry Peak.

One of the words that someone used about him was “fabulist,” that he would make up the most astounding stories, that he had just had cocktails with Cher, that he had a bit part in this soap opera or in this film, even though you found absolutely no records of that. But then he started telling stories about the fire at the Central Library.

I honestly wonder whether it ever occurred to him that telling tales about a crime — and this was a significant crime, a fire that destroyed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more – that that wasn't the best glamorous lie to tell. It’s one thing to say that you had drinks with Cher. It’s harmless. In the case of boasting that you committed a crime, you're entering a whole other world. You aren't really processing the fact that this could get you in very big trouble and it did. He boasted about the fire to a number of friends, eventually said it to arson investigators, and it didn't really register for him that this is a foolish thing to do because eventually someone's going to start taking you seriously.

And he was interrogated. He was arrested. He was released. The city filed a civil suit against him. He filed a civil suit against the city. This all ended up going nowhere. Harry Peak died and the case of arson in the Central Library fire remains technically unsolved to this day. Is that right?

Yes, that's right -- to the great frustration of really everybody involved. A number of firefighters believe that Harry did it and that they never got justice. None of us, no one in the public, has any real sense of closure, of thinking, all right, we now know who did it and maybe even why. I'm afraid that we're never going to be able to solve it this at this point.

In 1933 Los Angeles was the fifth biggest city in the country. But it had the most books in circulation. People loved the libraries. And yet, by the time the library fire had started, there were questions about tearing down the old library. The city had not put money in to update it. It was a fire hazard; it was a human hazard.

And it was not very popular with the people who worked there, let alone the people who used it. In the beginning, the building was admired, and it drew enormous praise, and it was a gorgeous, gorgeous piece of architecture.

Over time, with money always being tight and overuse of the library, it began to deteriorate. Unfortunately its deterioration corresponded also with the deterioration of downtown. There were some people who felt that there was no need for a library downtown at all, let alone restoring this one, or perhaps replacing it, but rather, tear it down, sell the land and just have a branch library.

It was more than 20 years of debate about what to do with the building.

And against this backdrop came the fire and then the community support for saving the library, for re-creating the library, which seems as important as the fire itself in giving L.A. a sense of itself.

There was very much a feeling that a city that was sophisticated and intellectual and grown up would have its own library and would have a library building. The campaign to pass the bond measures to fund a library building was always put in terms of this sense of identity. It was really not promoted as, we need these books. It was, we need a library in order to be taken seriously as a big city.

Had we torn down Central Library in the early '80s...I think it would be something we would be talking about still, about the loss of an historic building.

So it always was deeply enmeshed in the city's sense of itself. Had we torn down Central Library in the early ’80s, when it was really on the very brink of happening, I think it would be something we would be talking about still, about the loss of an historic building that is really iconic, that is right in the very heart of downtown, and provides the center of downtown with this public space that is very special and very distinctive.

I think we would look at it the way New Yorkers look at the destruction of the original Penn Station. I don't know that we would have ever gotten over it.

You spend one chapter writing about the burning of libraries as acts of war, as acts of degradation of culture. Most notoriously, of course, the Nazis burned books. There’s the famous quote you cited about where one begins by burning books, in the end one burns men. Books have become a surrogate in warfare and cultural wars.

It's a fundamental piece of a kind of psychological warfare. Before the printing press, if you destroyed a book, there was a chance that it would never be seen again.

We no longer have that as a consideration. We can create multiple copies of books. And now of course no book is ever lost, because we have it in an electronic form as well. But symbolically it's still a statement of erasure, a statement of terrorism.

It’s interesting that we still find that books are so meaningful and so soulful that the destruction of them feels deeply disturbing, and deeply and fundamentally terrifying.

For purposes of this book, you did something that I don't know that I could bring myself to do -- you burned a book.

It was not easy. As much as I had written about burning books and understood how all symbolically potent it is, I thought, I'd go to a bookstore, buy a book, burn it, and I can go get another one immediately. I'm not making a statement about a culture.

And yet I still found it absolutely distressing and difficult and profoundly uncomfortable.

What book was it?

I ended up burning “Fahrenheit 451.”

It was a book that really highlighted the brutality of destroying books, the horror that it evokes in us. And I think that [author Ray Bradbury] would have approved.

You take us through the fire, through the effort to save the books, to raise the money to repair the library. And by the time it reopened, the nature of public libraries was shifting. Libraries were about to enter the internet age. They were about to enter the homeless age. How did Angelenos feel about the new library, and how did these new service functions of a library get manifested?

I think the people of Los Angeles really have embraced the library. When the library reopened 25 years ago, it was really an emotional celebratory moment for people in Los Angeles.

We’ve been very lucky in the city because we've had people running the library who were really forward-thinking and saw the future of libraries and saw that their goal, their mission would diversify, and it wasn't only going to be, “Oh, you go there and you get a book,” but you go there for a whole range of services.

So there's a shift away from books just as a book, and a broadening to the idea that the library is the information center of the city. And we've done it really well in L.A.

At the same time, I think libraries remain physical places, and that there's something important about it, if only for the reason that it's a place to go to be around other people and to share space with other people, and a place where no money changes hands. It's not the same as going to Starbucks. It's different. It's a public space. It's like going to a park rather than to a country club. You are joining the community, and I think that's really important.

Even as libraries become more popular for a variety of reasons for their patrons, they've also begun to share – have shared for quite a long time -- the homelessness problem in Los Angeles.

I would say there's not a library that doesn't grapple with this as an issue. They are places that are open to the public, and in theory, you can show up at 10 a.m. and sit in the library all day long, and stay warm and dry and use the bathroom, and you don't have to buy anything, you don't have to pay anything.

So libraries just by definition have become one of the front line receivers of homeless people. I think libraries and librarians around the country have been remarkable. I really admire the openness and the effort and commitment and ingenuity of librarians, and city librarians in particular, the people who are making policy. They’ve really accepted it as an issue that, we're not going to try to get rid of it. We're going to try to make the library usable for both the homeless population and for people who are not homeless, who have some level of discomfort, whether it's hygiene issues or behavior issues with homeless people.

So they're doing something that is probably one of the modern world’s greatest challenges, which is to accept and try to be helpful to and sensitive to the homeless population.

Did anything you write in this book change your thinking about libraries?

I think it made me love them more, if that was possible! I honestly came away feeling that they are amazing models of what a community can be at its very best. When you dig deep into any subject, you open yourself to the possibility of being disappointed or having your illusions shattered. Actually my experience was kind of the opposite. I came away feeling really moved by the dedication, the enthusiasm and the real value of these places and the people who work in them.

I don't know if this is in fact a change as a result of the work you did on the book, but I'm hearing you talk about Los Angeles and Angelenos as “we.”

You may be hearing me in one of my very first moments of actually identifying myself as an Angeleno. I still consider myself something of a newcomer. I’ve been here for -- I guess this is the start of my seventh year, and I spend about a third of every year or quarter of every year still on the East Coast. But it’s starting to feel like this is home.

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