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Memorial Hall Library

Andover Reads 2021 - The Library Book by Susan Orlean

One Book. One Community. Andover Reads

During this time of pandemic, Memorial Hall Library is pleased to announce Andover Reads 2021, Susan Orlean's The Library Book, published in 2018 and released in paperback in 2019. The book explores the role of public libraries and so much more.

Memorial Hall librarians have created Shelf Help, a new podcast. The Library Book is their first subject. Click here to listen, or search for it in Apple Podcasts.

About the Book

Susan Orlean re-opens the unsolved mystery of the most catastrophic library fire in American history, and delivers a dazzling homage to a beloved institution – our libraries. On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. Raging through the stacks, the fire reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. It was the largest library fire in the history of the United States: it destroyed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more, and shut the library down for seven years. The mystery remains: did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her life-long love of books and reading with the fascinating history of libraries and the sometimes-eccentric characters who run them, award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Orlean presents a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling story. With her signature wit, insight, compassion and talent for deep research, she investigates the legendary Los Angeles Public Library fire to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives, and reveals how these buildings provide much more than just books and are needed now more than ever.

“A sheer delight. . . . Orlean has created a book as rich in insight and as varied as the treasures contained on the shelves in any local library.”
—Chris Woodyard, USA Today

“Exquisitely written, consistently entertaining . . . A loving tribute not just to a place or an institution but to an idea . . . What makes The Library Book so enjoyable is the sense of discovery that propels it, the buoyancy when Orlean is surprised or moved by what she finds. . . . Her depiction of the Central Library fire on April 29, 1986, is so rich with specifics that it’s like a blast of heat erupting from the page. . . . The Library Book is about the fire and the mystery of how it started—but in some ways that’s the least of it. It’s also a history of libraries, and of a particular library, as well as the personal story of Orlean and her mother, who was losing her memory to dementia while Orlean was retrieving her own memories by writing this book.”
—Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

“[A] loving encomium to libraries everywhere.”
—Sue Halpern, The New York Review of Books

“A lovely book . . . Susan Orlean has once again found rich material where no one else has bothered to look for it. . . . Once again, she’s demonstrated that the feelings of a writer, if that writer is sufficiently talented and her feelings sufficiently strong, can supply her own drama. You really never know how seriously interesting a subject might be until such a person takes a serious interest in it.”
—Michael Lewis, New York Times Book Review, Cover Review

“A book lover’s dream . . . This is an ambitiously researched, elegantly written book that serves as a portal into a place of history, drama, culture, and stories.”
—Jeffrey Ann Goudie, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Like an amble through the rooms and the stacks of a library, where something unexpected and interesting can be discovered on any page.”
—Scott Simon, NPR’s Weekend Edition

“Mesmerizing . . . A riveting mix of true crime, history, biography, and immersion journalism. . . . Probing, prismatic, witty, dramatic, and deeply appreciative, Orlean’s chronicle celebrates libraries as sanctuaries, community centers, and open universities run by people of commitment, compassion, creativity, and resilience.”
—Booklist (starred review)

“Engaging . . . Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“After reading Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, I’m quite sure I’ll never look at libraries, or librarians, the same way again. This is classic Orlean—an exploration of a devastating fire becomes a journey through a world of infinite richness, populated with unexpected characters doing unexpected things, with unexpected passion.”
—Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts, and Dead Wake

Reserve or Borrow a Copy of the Book

author photo
© 2018 Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Click the links below to reserve the format of your choice. For physical items, once you have been notified that your copy is available, you may arrange a Grab & Go pickup from the library or visit during the library's open hours to check out your copy. For digital items, you may be able to borrow them immediately or place a hold on a digital copy, which you may then borrow when available.

Discussion Questions

We'll be scheduling book discussions led by staff members. In the meantime, here are some questions to think about as you read the book. More information will be coming.

Created by Susan Orlean: The Library Book by Susan Orlean | Book Club Discussion Questions |

Tower of Central Library, Los Angeles
Central Library Mosaic Dome

Created by MHL librarians:

  • Click here to see a chapter-by-chapter discussion guide, or click here to download a PDF of these questions.
  • How have libraries impacted your life?
  • Did you visit your hometown library as a child? Do you have favorite memories or favorite books you would like to share?
  • How has the stereotypical image of the library as a quiet place for study and reading evolved over the past 30 years? Are these changes all positive, or do you view some as negative?
  • How did you feel when reading the chapter on the fire as it burned the books?
  • How do you think the fire started? Did the book feel unfinished since there is no definitive answer?
  • There were many head librarians written about in the book. What did each bring to the job that was positive/negative?
  • During the author's shadowing of John Szabo, were you surprised by the diverse nature of his job running the library?
  • How were women discriminated against since the inception of the LA Public Library?
  • What do you like about our library? What initiatives would you like to see from our library?

News Clips and Interviews with Susan Orlean, Firefighters, Library Director and City Officials

  • KTTV 70: Remembering the L.A. Central Library Fire -- As part of KTTV's 70th anniversary, we take a look back at one of LA's most destructive mysteries: the 1986 fire that destroyed the LA Central Library.
  • Why a library fire feels like an "attack on humanity" -- In April 1986, fire raged through the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles, damaging or destroying more than a million books. Journalist and author Susan Orlean resurrects this nearly forgotten story in The Library Book, which also explores the emotional attachment so many of us feel to books and libraries. Jeffrey Brown shares this true-life tale of loss and revitalization.
  • LAFD History: Los Angeles Central Library Fire, Battallion Chief Ray Gomez -- April 29, 1986 was a historic day in Los Angeles as over 350 LAFD firefighters battled to save the Central Library. Find out what it was like inside that fire.
  • Saving Central Library: Remembering the Fire and Recovery -- October 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of the LA Central Library reopening after a catastrophic fire in 1986. Three people who were there share their memories of the fire and the effort to recover and rebuild.
  • Library Fire 1986 --The morning after the Central Library caught fire on April 29th 1986, Mayor Bradley held a press conference to inform the city about what had happened. We present this audio narrating some photos taken at the time of the fire and later. The arson case remains open.

Listen to MHL Staff Discuss The Library Book

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Whether you're a regular podcast listener or new to the genre, we hope you'll enjoy the first six episodes of MHL's new podcast, Shelf Help, in which library staff discuss the book chapter by chapter. Whether you're reading along with us, have already read the book, or want to get an idea of what it's about, feel free to listen. You can find episodes and more info here.