The writer Susan Orlean has a distinct knack for taking topics that don’t sound that interesting on their own but she manages to make them gripping and engaging and her latest The Library Book is no exception. Orlean originally set out to write a book about “a year in the life of a library” until she discovered the story of the fire in the Central Library in Los Angeles. The fire took place in April 1986 and Orlean, who lived in NY at the time – didn’t even know about it happening then, even though she admits that as a bibliophile she should’ve remembered a story like that. Orlean discovers the story of the fire while talking to one of the librarians from LA’s Central Library. As he opens a book he inhales deeply and says that he could still smell the smoke. Only then does she learn of the fire and the bizarre story of the man suspected of arson, named Harry Peak. Peak is a uniquely LA character, a wannabe actor who is so untrustworthy that he brags about committing the fire to his friends, then changes his story and alibi multiple times to the police, often incriminating himself in the process. Peak is an elusive and not particularly sympathetic character but Orlean is drawn to him.
Orlean uses the story of the fire and Peak as a jumping off point to tell a bigger story and one that is quite personal to her. She recounts the visits to the library in her childhood home of Shaker Heights and how her mother would often say that if she could’ve chosen her profession she would’ve become a librarian “and the car would grow silent for a moment as we both considered what an amazing thing that would have been”. The story of Orlean’s mother frames the narrative and she talks about how libraries are places that preserve memories and stories, but at the time she was writing the book her mother was suffering from dementia and was losing track of her own memories. Orlean writes “The reason why I finally embraced this book project, wanted and then needed to write it was my realisation that I was losing her. I found myself wondering whether a shared memory can exist if one of the people sharing it no longer remembers it”. Orlean reflects on the dread of not only losing her mother but the inherent chaos and meaningless of existence. She finds comfort in remembering the importance and power of art and the places that preserve it, like libraries:
“If something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know you are part of a larger story that has shape and purpose.”
She talks about her personal struggles with writing but that the sheer act of doing it is fighting against her fears saying “Writing a book, just like building a library, is a sheer act of defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.”
Orlean weaves in interesting stories relating to the fire, the history of the library, the people that ran it and were shaped by it. She writes a beautiful story about how the author Ray Bradbury couldn’t write at home because he would end up playing with his children so he went to the LA Central Library to write what would become Fahrenheit 451. Orlean wonders what it must feel like to burn an actual book so she nervously sets fire to a copy of Fahrenheit 451 (the title of which is the temperature at which paper burns) and recounts how destructive the act feels and how books can have a human-like quality to them. She describes how libraries serve as means to connect people in their community – how they are a collection of solitary people connecting with each other silently and how libraries have managed to adapt themselves to modern times serving as community centers. She writes how the LA library still has a very popular service called InfoNow where people can call and ask a librarian the answer to any question they want. Even in the age of Google this service seems to be thriving and Orlean calls it “an analog experience in a digital world”.
As a kid in the suburbs of New York I grew up in the library. My mother would take us to our local library as children while she would go to church or grocery shopping and would let us roam around by ourselves and she would find us when she was done. As I got older I would often go directly to the film section (791.4 in the Dewey Decimal System) and would slowly make my way through most of the books. I would then wander through the fiction section and read the names of the authors on the spines and wonder if I would ever get to read them all. As a teenager I would take out a few movies a week and slowly gave myself an education in cinema history: discovering one filmmaker and then another and watching every movie of theirs I could get my hands on, with the friendly librarians recommending me other titles that weren’t on my radar.
As a kid in my local library I would stare at the shelves over my head and think about all the people that took out each book. Orlean ends by again talking about the defiant act of writing a book, regardless of how esoteric the topic is. The writer confident “that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is and how necessary and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that all these stories matter and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another and to our past and to what is still to come.”