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Acclaimed author Susan Orlean to speak about legendary library fire

Susan Orlean

Bud Werner Memorial Library presents an evening with Susan Orlean, award-winning journalist, New Yorker staff writer and an author declared a “national treasure” by The Washington Post, sharing her new nonfiction work, “The Library Book,” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17, in Library Hall. “The Library Book” is a New York Times bestseller and a Washington Post Top 10 Book of the Year. It is Orlean’s true story about the unsolved mystery of the most catastrophic library fire in American history, and a contemplation of a beloved institution.

if you go

What: Author talk with Susan Orlean, “The Library Book”
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17
Where: Library Hall, Bud Werner Memorial Library, 1289 Lincoln Ave.

On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. As the moments passed, the patrons and staff who had been cleared out of the building realized this was not the usual false alarm. The fire was disastrous: It reached 2,000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Investigators descended on the scene, but over 30 years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library — and if so, who?

In “The Library Book,” Orlean weaves together her life-long love of books and reading with the fascinating history of libraries and the sometimes-eccentric characters who run them. The New York Times bestselling author of “Rin Tin Tin” and “The Orchid Thief” presents a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling story as only she can.

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.

To truly understand what happens behind the stacks, Orlean visits the different departments of the Los Angeles Public Library, encountering an engaging cast of employees and patrons and experiencing alongside them the victories and struggles they face in today’s climate. She also delves into the evolution of libraries across the country and around the world, from a metropolitan charitable initiative to a cornerstone of national identity.

She reflects on her childhood experiences in libraries; studies arson and the long history of library fires; attempts to burn a copy of a book herself; and she re-examines the case of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor long suspected of setting fire to the library over 30 years ago. Along the way, she reveals how these buildings provide much more than just books — and that they are needed now more than ever.

Filled with heart, passion and unforgettable characters, “The Library Book” is classic Orlean, and an homage to a beloved institution that remains a vital part of the heart, mind, and soul of our country and culture. This community talk is free. Books will be available for sale and author signing courtesy of Off the Beaten Path bookstore. Visit steamboatlibrary.org/events for more information.

Jennie Lay is the adult programs coordinator at Bud Werner Memorial Library.


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