16 May 2019

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean's The Library Book was on the New York Times' best non-fiction of 2018 but it was how much I loved Orlean's research-heavy writing in The Orchid Thief (reviewed here) that made me  decide to buy a copy. What drew me to The Orchid Thief was her envy of passionate people. She memorably states: "I suppose I do have one unembarassing passion - I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately." The Library Book quickly becomes an ode to something Orlean is very passionate about - books.

Orlean's new book details the 1986 Los Angeles Library fire that destroyed and severely damaged nearly a million books. She explores how libraries operate in our society and the people who run them, as well as the criminal investigation surrounding the to-this-day unsolved cause of the fire. But even more importantly, she discusses her personal relationship to books and libraries and what this project meant to her.

I got a library card pretty early on in my childhood. I remember loving how I could take out way more books than I could possibly read before their due date. I loved carrying a giant stack of The Babysitter's Club up to the check out. I also remember having a stage five meltdown during a reading circle where one librarian had The Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet circling around us.

And then suddenly I stopped going to the library and didn't return until much later in my life. The last real significant time I would have spent in the Saint John Public Library was during the summers between completing my Master's degree and the one right after when I was looking for a job. I'd swim laps at the Aquatic Centre and then sit and read for a few hours while waiting for my then-boyfriend to finish up work.

Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage - the writer's belief 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 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."

The Los Angeles Public Library on fire in 1986
What I loved about Orlean's new book is that it makes you think back on your own experience and reminds you of how valuable libraries are. I have been obsessively buying books for years and so have long stopped renting them, but The Library Book reminded me that libraries are a lot more than just a place to rent books. They are so incredible because they are truly the last public space that doesn't discriminate and doesn't require you to pay to be there. They are one of the last "free" spaces available in today's world.

I was also weirdly interested in this book because I have a massive fear of losing all my books in a fire. I think about it once a week. I have told Ben over and over again that I want to put some of my Joan Didions and John Gregory Dunnes in a safety deposit box for protection. So reading about a massive library fire sort of stoked the flames (lol) of my anxiety.

In his decades with the department, Hamel fought thousands of fires, but he said he never experienced another that was as exceptional 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."

Like I said early on, I was initially attracted to this book because I know how great Orlean is with researching a specific topic. The book covers a ton of different topics such as the history of libraries in the United States, what book burning means, how homelessness and the library intersect, etc. One of my favourite sections was when she detailed how book burning has been going on for centuries as an act of war. She talks about the burning of the Library of Alexandria in 272 AD all the way up to the Nazi Regime's destruction of anything they described as "subversive."


The best part of this section is when Orlean tries to burn a book herself. She tries to reconcile burning tons of different kinds of books: a book she hates, one of her own books, a duplicate, an old trashy paperback, etc. She finally decides on one and can barely let the flames engulf the cover before she puts the fire out.

Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue: They take on a kind of human vitality. The poet Milton called this quality in books 'the potency of life.' I wasn't sure I had it in me to be a killer."

I expected to go into this book being most interested in the main suspect, Harry Peak. And while I did enjoy the passages devoted to describing his bizarre behaviour, I found the stuff I was most drawn to was the overall description of how the library functions. I liked reading about the shipping department and all the different types of librarians. I loved hearing what types of projects and issues the city librarian deals with on a day-to-day basis.

I was especially interested in how homelessness connects to the library. Orlean says early on in her book that "there is not a library in the world that hasn't grappled with the issue of how - and how much - to provide for the homeless." She mentions all sorts of different issues I've never considered, stuff like restrictions on how large a backpack someone can bring in, when you should ask someone to leave the library, setting up housing application stations, etc. It really made me remember that anyone can go to the library and how rare it is to have a space that is accessible for all.

The biggest library fire in American history had been upstaged by the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. The books burned while most of us were waiting to see if we were about to witness the end of the world."


Finally, the last thing I will mention is Orlean's ability to meld her own personal connection to the subject, regardless of whether it's flowers or government structures. She mentions at some point in the book that she decided to write this because of her relationship to her mother. She grew up going to the library with her mom and often looks back on these memories fondly. Her mom now suffers from dementia and often has a hard time recalling these memories the way Orlean does.

She uses this personal connection to talk about the importance of books and the ways that we store and protect them. How all books are these small vessels into another person's experience, and how all books are written with the intent to connect with the reader. I know this is an insanely long quotation to finish off my review but I thought it was the most beautiful part of the book:

The idea of being forgotten is terrifying. I fear not just that I, personally, will be forgotten, but that we are all doomed to being forgotten - that the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delight and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed. If you gaze into that bleakness even for a moment, the sum of life becomes null and void, because if nothing lasts, nothing matters. It means that everything we experience unfolds without a pattern, and life is just a wild, random, baffling occurrence, a scattering of notes with no melody. But 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 that you are part of a larger story that has shape and purpose - a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future. We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string. 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."

If you love reading and love books you should definitely check out Orlean's newest project.

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