Fire, Books, and Memories: On Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book”

FEW IMAGES CAN COMPETE in symbolic significance with that of a library on fire. The partly mythic destruction by fire of the Library of Alexandria — the greatest in the ancient world — was often said to mark the beginning of the so-called Dark Ages. Scrolls and codices that contained the memory of an entire civilization turned to ash, among them many works by the major Greek dramatists.
The story of the Alexandrian fire still speaks loudly to the power of written words and their effect on the fate of humanity. Fast-forward nearly two millennia to April 29, 1986, the date of the destruction by fire of the Los Angeles Public Library (henceforth LAPL) main branch in the heart of downtown. The fire, the cause of which is still inconclusive, destroyed half a million books and damaged another 700,000 more.
Susan Orlean’s The Library Book is ostensibly an investigative report on this catastrophic event and its cultural context. In its essence, however, the book is a treatise on the value of our public libraries, the most democratic spaces in our country. It is a call to protect these sacred places of collective memory.
Out of many lauded books Orlean has written (among them Rin Tin Tin and now-classic The Orchid Thief), this book is her most personal yet. She confesses early on that she had retired from writing books, but one day, when taking her six-year-old son to the LAPL, the memory of her own trip to the Shaker Heights Public library in Ohio with her mother during her childhood flooded back in. Knowing that her mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s, she looked for a way to harness the memory. Orlean is certain that if her mother could have chosen one career, that it would have been a librarian. Then, she learned of the fire, and a certain creative spark ignited.
Comprised of 32 short chapters, Orlean’s book parallels how memory works: chapters are brief, associative, and disorderly, yet not without specific details. They are neither chronologically nor thematically linear. Some chapters read dramatically (e.g., the day of the fire), others like a biography (e.g., on eccentric Charles Lummis, the past head of the LAPL main branch), yet others like a love letter (supposedly to our libraries). Each chapter begins with Dewey Decimal System descriptions of four materials that can be found in LAPL, previewing the content of that chapter. This ingenious format, while allowing the readers to easily stroll along the multifaceted narrative paths circling the main subject that is LAPL, evokes the nature of the library, the disorder in the guise of order.
Many interspersed chapters are devoted to the only suspect of the arson at the time: Harry Peak. According to his sister, he was the “biggest bullshitter,” and this particular character trait rendered the investigation at the time much like going through a labyrinth without an exit. Always dreaming of Hollywood stardom, he was lean, handsome, and gay, with a bonfire of blonde hair that people always noticed first when they encountered him. At the time of Orlean’s writing of the book, Harry was long dead and through the conversation with his surviving family members and friends, city attorneys, firemen, and detectives, she reconstructs Peak’s life before and after the fire.
At the end of the book, Orlean gives her own verdict on Harry Peak’s arson, a verdict that contradicts the popular assumption in the past and even now. The focus on Harry Peak serves as momentum to the overall narrative.
Yet the thread more intriguing than that of Harry Peak is the beginning of the LAPL main branch and its journey to its present state. This historical account portrays the library as if it were a living entity — covering its conception, its growth and maturity as a keeper of memory encompassing those of immigrants, cross-country settlers, politicians, and the homeless. Its head librarians included women at a time when few were allowed to head a public institution.
Orlean shadowed librarians at LAPL with an unedited, camera-eye view of events inside the library, and learns that it also harbors a great collection of music scores, maps, and even menus. It was another usual day of library hustle and bustle on April 29, 1986.
The materiality of a typical book — paper, cardboard, and glue — is prone to quick conflagration. To witness the firsthand account of book burning, Orlean lights a fire to a book one day on the top of the hill in her backyard (she selected Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for the sacrifice, the book about book burning). A few chapters later, she navigates through the major book-burning events in our past (this chapter will elicit a grimace in all book lovers), giving examples such as the Spanish colonization of the Aztec Empire when Hernán Cortés and a priest named Diego de Landa burned every Mayan book they could find, and a Nazi event called “Fire Incantations,” when many books by Jewish and leftist authors were fed into fire. That people have been burning libraries for nearly as long as they’ve been building them testifies to the power of books. Many readers will be surprised to learn the existence of the word libricide.
Luckily for LAPL, the library fire only reaffirmed the indubitable value of books and the library. Citizens from every social rung volunteered to save the books that were still salvageable. They carried damaged books to food storage to freeze them (and this was followed by the biggest thawing event in US history); charity events were held, sometimes with the help of a pompous pastor and celebrities, raising millions of dollars to replace the burned books. The CEO neighbor in the next building, Lodwrick Cook of ARCO, provided space for these volunteers and rallied support for donations.
Hope is intertwined with the idea of a library. The stories in the world are recorded in the hope that someone else will read them sometime in the indefinite future, in the hope that memory can persist a little longer, a memory that renders comfort. In an era of neoliberal capitalism, the “publicness” of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. When everything is scrutinized under the cost/benefit analysis, our public libraries function like rebels, resisting the encroaching legion of policies that monetize all things in their path. The public libraries’ services to our democracy is more than what we can put down in an annual report.
Orlean’s book encourages us to make necessary trouble in order to keep our public libraries alive, and ends with a bit of lasting wisdom: “All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here is my story, please listen; here I am, please tell me your story.”
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Richard M. Cho is a librarian at California State University, Fullerton. He writes occasional book and movie reviews on the website he founded, www.jjjreview.com.
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