Susan Orlean writes about our emotional connections to libraries, and a 1986 fire that broke out in the Los Angeles Public Library that destroyed some 400,000 books, in "The Library Book." She speaks at Seattle Public Library's Central Library on Nov. 7.
For those of us who love books, libraries are sacred places. Ask any reader to describe their childhood library — if they were lucky enough to have one — and you’ll likely get a lovingly detailed portrait. (Mine? Down a staircase, smelling deliciously of old paper and rain and acetate book covers and possibility, and featuring a favorite librarian — I never knew her name — who had very long hair and a way of whisking cards through the stamping machine at a speed so breakneck I worried her fingers would get tangled.)
Susan Orlean, known for her literary nonfiction in The New Yorker and in book form (“The Orchid Thief,” “Rin Tin Tin”), grew up visiting the Bertram Woods Branch Library in suburban Cleveland with her mother, and treasured those trips. Over the years of her career as a writer, she occasionally had idle thoughts about writing a book about the life of a library. “It was nothing more than just thinking, wow, libraries are interesting places and I wonder how they work and wouldn’t that be an interesting book,” she said in a recent phone interview.
It took a visit with her own child to reconnect with the idea, after moving to Los Angeles in 2011 and taking her young son to their new neighborhood library. She was struck with a sense of timelessness, which she describes in the book that was born on that day:
“Nothing had changed — there was the same soft tsk-tsk-tsk of pencil on paper, and the muffled murmuring from patrons at the tables in the center of the room, and the creak and groan of book carts, and the occasional papery clunk of a book dropped on a desk. The scarred wooden checkout counters, and the librarians’ desks, as big as boats, and the bulletin board with its fluttering, raggedy notices were all the same. The sense of gentle, steady busyness, like water on a rolling boil, was just the same. The books on the shelves, with some subtractions and additions, were certainly the same.”
That visit, Orlean remembered on the phone, created “this very emotional response that made me feel so reconnected to my childhood. It really focused that rather idle thought, much more intensely. It wasn’t only, ‘Geez, libraries are interesting, it would be fun to write about them.’ It was, ‘Libraries bring out some emotional connection that’s really profound, and why is that and what is it?’”
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The result of exploring those questions over seven years of research and writing is Orlean’s newest book: “The Library Book.” She’ll speak about it in Seattle on Nov. 7 at — where else? — the Seattle Public Library’s Central Library.
Though “The Library Book” is at its heart (or spine?) a love letter to libraries, a fascinating true-crime story serves as its centerpiece. In April 1986, a fire broke out in the Los Angeles Public Library, burning for seven hours before it could be contained. Some 400,000 books were destroyed, by fire or by the water used to extinguish it, and 700,000 more were damaged. A charismatic would-be actor and habitual liar named Harry Peak — a handsome blond fellow who resembled the young Jon Voight and, Orlean wrote, “was good at fancying up facts to make his life seem less plain and mingy” — was suspected of setting the fire, but investigators struggled to find definitive evidence.
Orlean dived into the mystery, tracking down Peak’s relatives and exploring his alibis. And she puts her readers into the searing heart of the fire: A sequence of about a dozen pages, early in the book, meticulously describes its progression, from the first smoke-detector alarm (there were no sprinklers) at just before 11 a.m. to the moment at 6:30 p.m., when “(the) last flags of fire fluttered, seethed, settled, and finally died.”
“I wanted to write that section to give the reader a real feel of the fury, and the insatiability of the fire as it went through the building,” Orlean said. “I’ve never written a section like that in a book, so intimately detailed. It was really challenging.”
She was helped enormously by the log kept by the Los Angeles Fire Department (who sent out the majority of their personnel and equipment to fight the fire), who noted every few minutes “what equipment is being used, how it’s being used, where the fire is moving, where they see smoke,” Orlean said. “It’s very dry in terms of the writing but it gave me essentially a map of where the fire was moving, and a very detailed description of what the firefighters were doing at each moment.” Also useful: “a detailed blow-by-blow of the fire” by the National Fire Protection Insurance Company, newspaper accounts and interviews with many of the participating firefighters.
Though the fire and investigation create a through line for the book, “The Library Book” also presents a history of the Los Angeles Public Library from its birth in 1873, bringing to life a series of fascinating people (including several remarkable women who ran the library in its early years, one of whom was just 18). And Orlean takes us inside the library as it is now, showing us how it works, profiling its staff and exploring issues contemporary libraries face: digitization of materials; how best to help and serve homeless patrons; drawing young readers to libraries; the future of the institution. (Former Seattle city librarian Deborah Jacobs makes a cameo appearance, speaking about her work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries initiative.)
As if all this weren’t enough to make “The Library Book” irresistible, take a look at its cover, which Orlean helped design. There’s no paper dust jacket; instead, it looks like a library book with its slightly bumpy red binding. Inside the back cover, looking almost 3D, is an image of a pocket with a library due-date card peering out. Four handwritten names appear on the card, next to dates that span many decades: Ray Bradbury; whose “Fahrenheit 451” explored the idea of book-burning; Orlean’s mother Edith Gross; Orlean herself; and the author’s son, Austin Gillespie.
And each chapter begins with a list of book titles, authors, publication dates and call numbers, shown in a typewriter-like font, like cards in an old card catalog. All of these are books currently on the shelves of the Los Angeles Public Library. The idea, said Orlean, was to create a feeling in the reader of browsing, and to emphasize “the vastness of what is in a library.”
It’s lovely to think of well-thumbed copies of “The Library Book” becoming part of library collections everywhere, entering the memories of now and future visitors. “In the library,” Orlean writes eloquently in her book, “time is dammed up — not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”
Susan Orlean will speak about “The Library Book” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 7, at the Microsoft Auditorium in Seattle Public Library’s Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free, 206-386-4636, spl.org.