Had I written this book, the title would have been:
“The Life, Death, And Re-birth Of An Urban Library”
The story begins with a description of Harry Peak, the man charged with setting the Los Angeles Central Library on fire back in 1986. The building was set ablaze on April 29, resulting in 400,000 books being incinerated, and 700,000 other being damaged, as well as the destruction of much of the building. The cost of the disaster was $22 million, the worst of any library fires in the history of the United States. Oddly, it was barely reported in the news. The headlines were consumed with the Chernobyl nuclear plant melt-down that had occurred three days previous.
It was an old and well-loved urban library that had been built in 1926. It was a heavily used library, with people from all walks of life using it – students, researchers, families, and homeless people. The building was bursting at the seams with books, having twice as many as the library was originally built for. It took almost every fire fighter in Los Angeles over seven hours to contain and put the fire out.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was its multiple story lines. The author covers many parts of library life. She describes the architecture of the building, rivalries between the early librarians of the Central Library, encounters with patrons, how books are added to the library collection, a deep analysis of Harry Peak, and her own recollections of going to a library with her mother as a child.
It turns out that burning books and libraries is not as uncommon as I had thought. The author does a great job of describing many other burnings throughout history, going back to 213 B.C. It’s sad to think that a place that brings so many people together could became the target of a madman. I end this book review with a quote from the book:
“In the saga of humankind, most things are done for money, arson especially. But there is no money to be made by burning libraries. Instead, libraries are usually burned because they contain ideas that someone finds problematic.”
(from chapter 9)