Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Wednesday, July 18, 2018: Maximum Shelf: The Library Book

Simon & Schuster: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Simon & Schuster: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Simon & Schuster: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Simon & Schuster: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book

by Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, Rin Tin Tin and many more, investigates another passionate subculture in The Library Book. This time, Orlean digs into the world of libraries, offering both a meditation on the value of libraries in a digital age and a deep dive into the history of the Los Angeles Public Library--with a particular focus on a fire at the LAPL in 1986 that destroyed almost half a million books and damaged 700,000 more. According to Orlean: "It was one of the biggest fires in the history of Los Angeles and the single biggest library fire in the history of the United States."

If you haven't heard of the fire, it's likely because it was buried in the news by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Orlean does exceptional work reconstructing the path and ferocity of the blaze, interviewing firefighters like then-captain Ron Hamel:

"In his decades with the department, Hamel fought thousands of fires, but he said he never experienced another that was as extraordinary as the fire at Central Library. Usually, a fire is red and orange and yellow and black. The fire in the library was colorless. You could look right through it, as if it were a sheet of glass.... It was so hot that it appeared icy."

The tragedy of the fire brought the city together in appreciation of the library, hundreds of volunteers showing up to help remove thousands of wet, smoky books that needed to be stored in huge industrial freezers until attempts could be made to salvage them. Here, Orlean evokes a common theme in the book, the civic engagement that libraries promote and inspire, a sense of community built out of a shared desire to preserve knowledge: "They created, for that short time, a system to protect and pass along shared knowledge, to save what we know for each other, which is what libraries do every day."

In the aftermath of the fire, people searched for an explanation. An arson investigation was launched that eventually located a prime suspect: Harry Peak, an aspiring actor and inveterate liar. Peak is perhaps the most intriguing character out of an outlandish cast. Orlean skips forward and backward in the library's history at will, but reserves plenty of space for Peak's ordeals. Peak spurred on suspicions about his culpability by telling multiple conflicting stories about what he was doing prior to and during the fire, even insisting that "a handsome fireman had carried him out of the building" after he helped an elderly lady escape. Investigators became convinced of his guilt, but concrete evidence never materialized. After descending into court battles with the city, Peak's story ends tragically with his death of complications from HIV/AIDS in 1993.

Orlean does not take a passive role in her book. She speaks to an arson investigator who raises doubts that the fire was caused by arson, pointing out the many accidental causes that also existed. She burns a book--a copy of Fahrenheit 451, naturally--and reflects on the role libraries have played in her own life. She also reports on the challenges that come with libraries' status as public institutions: "The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don't charge any money for that warm embrace." That powerful "commitment to inclusion" leads to many of the challenges facing the modern incarnation of the LAPL and libraries in general, including their role as "a de facto community center for the homeless across the globe."

Orlean tracks the evolution of the LAPL over time, finding early examples of ambitious librarians who tried to make libraries into more than just a place to store books. One of The Library Book's implicit arguments for the value of libraries is the kinds of people they attract, especially employees, who seem a fiercely committed, often eccentric bunch, from the library's inception to the present day. The patrons are no less unusual, giving Orlean great material for anecdotes:

"For years, movie studios were major book-pinching culprits. Rather than simply checking out books they needed for their research--and thus having to abide by the due date--studios sometimes dispatched two assistants to the library to steal them. The scheme involved one of the assistants taking a position outside a window and the other pitching the desired book out the window to his or her counterpart. This happened so often that the library had an employee whose main job was to visit the studios on a regular basis to get the books back."

The Library Book is full of delightful little stories of this kind, as well as serious cogitation on the future of libraries. Without painting them as a utopia, Orlean is proudly pro-library, and her enthusiasm permeates every page. It's hard not to cheer for her vision of libraries as multifunction community centers. Her description of teen librarians is a good example: "Being a teen librarian is a slight misnomer. The librarians in the department view themselves as a hybrid of unofficial advice-givers, part-time disciplinarians, and homework coaches." Plus, librarians serve a vital purpose in the digital age by providing free access to computers and the Internet. With innovative programs like e-book lending on the rise, libraries look to expand their utility far into the future.

After reading The Library Book, it's easy to understand why Orlean would regard a library fire as such a tragedy. As Orlean writes: "Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory." The destruction of books becomes something more than burning paper; it becomes an attack on our cultural DNA. In The Library Book, the fire is an opportunity to reestablish the value of libraries as treasured public institutions. --Hank Stephenson

Simon & Schuster, $28, hardcover, 336p., 9781476740188, October 16, 2018

Simon & Schuster: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean: The Life of a Library

photo: Gaspar Tringale

Susan Orlean has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1992. Her books include Rin Tin Tin, Saturday Night and The Orchid Thief, which was made into the Academy Award–winning film Adaptation. Her newest is The Library Book, which is simultaneously a meditation on the value of libraries, a history of the Los Angeles Public Library and an account of the disastrous fire at the LAPL in 1986. Orlean investigates the possibility that the fire was an act of arson, centering on Harry Peak, a likable aspiring actor who also happened to be a compulsive liar.

How did the story of a library fire end up capturing your attention?

I had decided there was a great story to tell about the life of a library, but I wasn't sure what the narrative arc would be. When I heard about the fire, I was so shocked--shocked by its extent, and shocked that I had never heard about it, even though it was the largest library fire in the history of the United States. That instantly struck me as the perfect entry point into the bigger story I wanted to tell, about the way a public library lives and breathes and endures.

You portray the library fire at the Los Angeles Public Library as an agonizing tragedy. What is it about books that makes their destruction feel almost like an act of violence?

Books seem to possess a sort of life force, something that makes them more than mere objects made of paper and glue. We pour our stories and thoughts into them; they contain everything we know and dream about. They are a kind of DNA, so destroying them feels like an attack on something deep and fundamental.

How did you determine how much of the book you wanted to be about Harry Peak and the arson investigation versus a more general meditation on libraries?

I wanted to weave those stories together organically, keeping Harry's story always feeling continuous, even when I detoured into history and reportage. I assumed the right balance would be one-third Harry, one-third history, one-third present day. I never counted it up, but I feel like that's close to how it turned out.

There's something very tragic about Harry Peak, regardless of whether he was involved in the fire. In researching the book, did you find yourself understanding how he could be simultaneously so likable and so frustrating?

Yes! I think we’ve all met a Harry--someone charming and spacey and irresponsible and lovable. He was perhaps more irresponsible than most of the Harrys I've known, but I definitely felt a familiarity with him.

Is there a way in which libraries represent a vision of a more community-minded society?

Libraries represent a democratic ideal--a community institution that celebrates and delivers knowledge, embracing and servicing everyone, with no regard to race or citizenship or age or any denominator. They shine at this moment in time more than ever.

Is there a positive way in which libraries draw us out of our bubbles?

We've become a society of separateness and boundaries. That doesn't foster the qualities we need to thrive as a pluralistic nation. Libraries' openness, and the fact that they are places of publicness and equality, provides a chance to reconnect to the idea of what community is--for better or worse.

To outsiders, L.A. can seem like a lonely and alienating city. Is there a way in which the fire reveals something about L.A.'s civic spirit?  

Now that I live in L.A., I see that its reputation as a soulless, lonesome city isn't really deserved. It's a collection of hundreds of little villages, and sometimes it's hard for people to see beyond their specific little village. But the fire was a distinct moment of drawing people together from everywhere around the city, regardless of whether they used the downtown branch or not. In the end, people from San Pedro to Sherman Oaks, from Atwater Village to Compton, felt that the Central Library was an essential piece of the city that needed to be saved. We do manage to come together when we need to!

Do you think we take libraries for granted? Many of us are so used to having libraries as a kind of public utility--I wonder if one thing the fire revealed was the value of something we assume will always be there.

Yes, we absolutely take them for granted. We just trust that they exist, that they thrive, that they grow and that they will serve us, and we don't worry about it much. Generally speaking, though, many library bonds do pass--so when libraries come looking for money, we usually say yes.

As an author, do you have a particular relationship to libraries different than other patrons?

As an author, the library gives me immortality, so I do think I look at it differently from other patrons. Bookstores sell my books, but libraries say my books are worthy of preserving forever--that's had a profound impact on me.

There may be no answering the mystery at the heart of the book. Does that frustrate you, or can you appreciate the ambiguity it leaves behind?

I don't mind that it's left unresolved. Most of life isn't absolute, and because Harry died, we can't get any closer to knowing the truth of what really happened. I thought I might stumble on something that would move the story closer to a resolution, but I didn't, and I accepted that as the way life often is.

I think part of the horror of the library fire in your book is the apparent senselessness of it, especially if it was set by human hands. Do you see value in the kind of order libraries impose in such a chaotic and strange world?

Libraries express our urge to have life--knowledge, information--follow a pattern, make sense, feel purposeful. To have such a huge catastrophe feels so pointless, so random, makes it that much more disturbing. If it had been an act of war or a political gesture, we might hate it but it would have had logic. This felt terrible, wasteful and meaningless. That makes it so much worse. --Hank Stephenson

Powered by: Xtenit