The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book
The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library Book by Susan Orlean is one book but no fewer than three distinct but overlapping stories; the history, not just of the Los Angeles Public Library system, but of libraries, the saga of the April 28, 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Central Library, and the story of the search for the library’s arsonist.

It is this devastating fire that forms the basis or reason for the book. LA Central is a vast building with millions of books and thousands of patrons on any given day. I think the idea of a library fire is something that escapes our notice most of the time but given the contents of a library it stands to reason that once ignited, a library fire would be devastating. In the case of LA Central, “Twenty years earlier, in 1967, a fire department concluded that the probability of a major fire at the library was ‘very high.’” due to routinely blocked exits, lack of fire doors, and inadequate fire suppression.

Orlean masterfully reconstructs the events of the day, both within the library and without, as the fire moved from a small bit of smoldering paper somewhere in the bowels of the library and the assumption that it was just another false fire alarm, to a conflagration that threatened to overwhelm the many fire companies called to the scene that nearly consumed the entire building.

“The firefighters began to worry about a flashover, a dreaded situation during a fire in which everything in a closed space – even smoke – becomes so hot that it reaches a point of spontaneous ignition, causing a complete and consuming eruption of fire from every surface. As firefighters put it, it’s the moment when a fire in a room is transformed into a room on fire.”

Through eyewitness accounts the events of the day are recreated, not in the way a journalist would narrate the tragedy, but in the voice of a book person.

 “Even though a fire was storming inside, the library didn’t look distressed if you viewed it from the street. The stucco was smooth and undisturbed. The limestone facing of the outer walls was cool as satin. The statuary gazed sightlessly into the middle distance. The windows glanced and glittered in the sunlight. It was quiet. Except for the pale trickle of smoke from the roof, you might not have known anything was amiss. Then, suddenly, with a bright, hard snap, the windows on the west side of the library exploded and the red arms of flame punched outward and upward, slapping at the stone façade. One of the library commissioners watching from the sidewalk burst into tears. The librarians recoiled. One said she felt like she was watching a horror movie. According to librarian Glen Creason, the breeze was filled with ‘the smell of heartbreak and ashes.’”

Los Angeles Central Library Fire, from the LAPL Tessa Collection

Ultimately the fire was brought under control but the devastation on the Los Angeles Central Library was unspeakable and felt throughout the city.

 “The number of books destroyed or spoiled was equal to the entirety of fifteen typical branch libraries. It was the greatest loss to any public library in the history of the United States.”

Los Angeles Central Library fire, 1986. From

I think we take for granted the importance of public libraries in our lives. It isn’t because we do not value them, but that they have become touchstones in our lives that we cannot imagine not having. As she investigates the motivation for the arson of LA Central, Orlean creates a narrative of book burning that is so much larger than her primary story but to me is infinitely more important noting, “War is the greatest slayer of libraries.” From this vantage point she describes the use of book burning as a weapon of war, not so much to gain a military advantage but as a psychological attack.

“Burning books is an inefficient way to conduct a war, since books and libraries have no military value, but it is a devastating act. Destroying a library is a kind of terrorism.”

What a deeply disturbing thought but one that cannot be avoided or denied.

 “In the saga of humankind, most things are done for money – arson especially – but there is no money to be made by burning libraries. Instead, libraries are usually burned because they contain ideas that someone finds problematic.”

From here Orlean describes the Nazi’s use of book burning as yet another way to subdue the German Jews and as an attempt to erase them from memory.

World War II destroyed more books and libraries than any even in human history. The Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books during their twelve years in power. Book burning was, as author George Orwell remarked, ‘the most characteristic [Nazi] activity.”

“The Feuerspruche was a pet project of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party’s propaganda chief, who understood how fundamental books were to Jewish culture, theology, and identity. Burning Jewish books, in his opinion, was an ideal form of bloodless torture, demonstrating the limitlessness of German control.”

The book burning in Berlin, May 10, 1933, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.

“The irony of the Feuerspruche was that they treated books as seriously as Jews did. To feel the need to destroy them acknowledged the potency and value of books and recognized the steadfast Jewish attachment to them.”

“By the end of the war, more than one third of all the books in Germany were gone.”

 Even reading these words brings a tightness to my chest that I cannot fully explain. Maybe it is not the same for everyone but I can easily feel that burning of books would be an act of terrorism, even in today’s world that seems on the verge of overusing that word. As I’ve mentioned before I do some mission work with our church’s high school youth on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The Lakota Sioux have an oral tradition that is the basis for their shared identity. It’s through stories past down from generation to generation that they know and remember who they are and, though it is often important from young people to leave the reservation, they feel a sense of loss when someone does leave. Yes, because of a familial attachment to that person, but also because they believe a piece of their story has been lost. So it is with western cultures, except that we don’t have a primarily oral tradition but a written one.

“Destroying a culture’s books is something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”

Lest you think book burning was only a tool of the Nazis, Orlean writes,

UNESCO released studies in 1949 and in 1996 listing all the libraries that have been demolished throughout modern history. The number of books destroyed, by UNESCO’s count, is so enormous – in the billions – that I sometimes find it hard to believe there are any books left in the world.”

While the book is about the 1986 LA Central Library fire, throughout the book Orleans describes her love of libraries and books that, I think, resonates with so many book lovers and provides a welcome balm to some of the other traumatic passages in The Library Book.

“It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries – and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, 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.”

I love this quote as it is consistent with my thoughts. So many times I like to just wander through a good library, looking at the spines and thinking of what they contain. It’s more than that though, as being part of the library is to be part of an intellectual community that spans oceans and years. It is a place I enjoy just being even if I’ve brought a book of my own.

“A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me.”

Finally, Orlean makes a compelling case for the importance of libraries and librarians in our societies that extends far beyond books.

 “In times of trouble, libraries are sanctuaries. They become town squares and community centers – even blood-draw locations.”

Although prior to the nineteenth century, “libraries were viewed as scholarly and elite, rather than an indispensable and democratic public resource,” they have become buildings of and for the people. In fact, the public library may be the last place in our society where you can enter for free, enjoy a period of solitude, and no one expects anything from you. This is of enormous value to every class in our country today.

A library is, “One of the few places homeless people are welcomed, given access to computers and the Internet, and permitted to dally all day (unless they act out) is a public library. Libraries have become a de facto community center for the homeless across the globe. 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.”

Quoting a LA Central librarian, Orlean writes,

“He once confided to me that when he worked at a branch downtown, local drug dealers used to come to the library and ask him to help fill out their tax returns. He thought it was a perfect example of the rare role libraries play, to be a government entity, a place of knowledge, that is nonjudgmental, inclusive, and fundamentally kind.”

And so it becomes clear that,

 “Every problem that society has, the library has, too, because the boundary between society and the library is porous; nothing good is kept out of the library, and nothing bad.”

In the end, The Library Book by Susan Orlean makes me love libraries and books all the more. She highlights the importance of these places and the ideas, both written and experienced, that they contain. I struggle to imagine what our lives would be like without libraries, but I do know they would be less rich than they are today.

If books and libraries are important to you, I cannot recommend The Library Book enough.

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