Susan Orlean borrows a page from LA fire to talk up libraries
The day author Susan Orlean arrived in Toronto to promote her new non-fiction title, , the temperature in the city plummeted, a chilling reminder of the frigid winter weather yet to come.
On the Toronto Public Library’s website — inches above a promotion for Orlean’s event that night — a banner notified readers of the city-issued extreme cold alert, inviting those who need an escape from the outdoors to “visit a library to keep warm.”
The TPL’s open offer underscores the messages in Orlean’s new book, which pays homage to the multitude of roles, from history keeper to information call line, the beloved institution has played throughout history. Libraries are one of the last free public spaces that still openly welcome our most vulnerable and disenfranchised people. Many have expanded their offerings to include 3D printing studios, maker spaces and movie streaming (Halifax’s public system is currently scouting for chefs to run food programs). Online, libraries are celebrated and fetishized for their physical attributes: 11.9 thousand posts are tagged on Instagram as #libraryporn.
Orlean, who grew up in a family of readers, swore she was done writing books, but after moving to Los Angeles with her family, she took her son for a visit to their local library branch. Suddenly, she felt the familiar emotional pull of the building — and a new idea began wheeling in her brain.
“I wanted to spend a year documenting the life of a library, but I had a difficult time finding a narrative that would tie it together,” Orlean says. “I still think it could be done, but this wasn’t the book.” She found the connective tissue that would hold her story together, and allow her to branch into a broader history, when she began researching a fire that destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986. Flames burned and smoke billowed for more than seven hours, reducing 400,000 books to ash, with another 700,000 damaged. At 2,500 degrees, it is what Orlean refers to as the “perfect fire.” The suspected arsonist, Harry Peak — a tall, blond, affable wannabe actor — provided an unlikely suspect and fascinating mystery. Orlean doesn’t treat him as a villain; she draws him as more of an attention seeker who kept changing his stories and alibis, though she still finds his behaviour baffling.
is not the first time Orlean has immersed herself completely in a subject of interest. She’s built a formidable journalism career by constructing rich personal stories out of obscure topics, whether it’s rare flower poaching in Southern Florida () or the true story behind a Hollywood canine career ().
“They’re all challenging to write, but this story was particularly difficult to structure because really it was like writing four books and having them try to live together in one,” she says. “It was an organizational challenge, for sure, but I am happy with how I solved it.”
Orlean would spend days “moving among all the different types of reporting,” getting a feel for day-to-day life in the stacks, while researching any number of topics from the history of arson in Los Angeles to information on the fire itself. In Orlean’s hands, even a detailed history of LAPL’s administration is fascinating. “I always had something to fall back on when I ran out of steam with one subject, but it meant that I was often feeling, ‘whoa,’” she says. “Sometimes I felt scrambled because I was working among all those topics.”
For those who cringe at folding a page corner, the thought of losing 400,000 books to fire is horrifying. Orlean — who writes about the long history and taboo of burning books to extinguish others’ ideologies — discovered that lighting just one can also be viscerally upsetting. She decided that she needed to physically experience the sensation herself. After some consideration, Orlean selected a paperback copy of Ray Bradbury’s for the sacrifice. “It was a potent, disturbing sensation,” she says. “It felt so wrong.”
Even the classically inspired design of , with its beautiful red-woven cover and gold-foil lettering, serves as a reminder that books are physical (albeit vulnerable) objects. The chapter heads are written like entries in a card catalogue, with a list of titles and call numbers that give a sense of how far-reaching Orlean’s research can be. There are reference books on architecture, explosives, puppeteering, cults and Laika the Space Dog. “I wanted those to be a subtle way of looking at the breadth of what a library has,” Orlean says. “Ultimately with this book, I wanted the book to feel like you were browsing a library.”
Sue Carter is the editor of Quill and Quire.