The Library Book

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John F
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The Library Book

Post by John F » Thu Oct 11, 2018 4:01 am

That's the title of a new book by Susan Orlean. From the New York Times review it sounds like good reading for anyone who uses or cares about America's public libraries. The focus is not on the New York Public Library but the Los Angeles Public Library system, which may make it a preview of what's to come.

An Epic Blaze Propels Susan Orlean’s ‘The Library Book’
Jennifer Szalai
Oct. 10, 2018

“I had decided I was done with writing books,” Susan Orlean writes. “Working on them felt like a slow-motion wrestling match.” But after moving to Los Angeles seven years ago, around the time her book about Rin Tin Tin was published, she learned that the city’s Central Library had suffered a catastrophic fire in 1986. The discovery nudged her into the ring again.

“The Library Book” is about the fire and the mystery of how it started — but in some ways that’s the least of it. It’s also a history of libraries, and of a particular library, as well as the personal story of Orlean and her mother, who was losing her memory to dementia while Orlean was retrieving her own memories by writing this book. Orlean recalls a library-centric childhood in suburban Cleveland, when her mother would let her wander the stacks on her own. “Those visits were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived,” she writes. “In the library I could have anything I wanted.”

That sense of possibility animates her new book, which is a loving tribute not just to a place or an institution but to an idea. “The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity,” Orlean writes. “It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace.” That turn at the end of the sentence is pure Orlean; even when contemplating something as big and abstract as “publicness,” her sensibility veers toward the immediacy of the human touch.

Her depiction of the Central Library fire on April 29, 1986, is so rich with specifics that it’s like a blast of heat erupting from the page. Books “burst like popcorn,” while melting microfilm smelled like syrup. The firefighters’ hoses were too swollen with water to bend around the narrow staircases. It took more than seven hours and 3 million gallons of water to extinguish the flames. Four hundred thousand books were incinerated; another 700,000 were damaged by smoke or water or both.

Orlean uses the fire and the investigation that ensued as a delicate trellis for “The Library Book.” She recounts the life of Harry Peak, a wannabe actor and compulsive fabulist who was arrested on suspicion of starting the fire but never charged. Peak, who died in 1993, wasn’t much of a library patron himself; an ex-boyfriend couldn’t recall ever seeing him read a book.

But since this is Orlean, the trellis ends up being merely a suggestion. The stories outgrow their frame and proliferate. More substantive than the Peak drama is the history of the Los Angeles library system, which was initially viewed as an elite enclave rather than an essential public resource.

A pivotal and polarizing figure was the eccentric journalist Charles Lummis, who held the title of City Librarian in the early 20th century, pulling off the neat trick of making the library “more democratic and yet more sophisticated” at once. Lummis was the kind of brilliant obsessive who was extremely confident in his own genius but “had no instinct for self-preservation,” Orlean writes. He reveled in a swashbuckling censoriousness, implementing what he called a “Literary Pure Food Act,” stamping a skull and crossbones onto the frontispiece of pseudoscience books he deemed so iffy that they were dangerous. He proudly described himself in a letter as a “Two-fisted He-Person” who seized “that Sissy Library and made it, within two years, an Institution of Character, a He-Library.”

The Los Angeles Public Library has changed a great deal since Lummis’s time. It’s a transformation that Orlean charts with a combination of concern and wonder. Ever since the 1960s, as psychiatric hospitals discharged more patients and social services budgets shriveled, libraries have become one of the few places where the homeless can go. The library now acts as a “de facto community center,” laboring under the strain of growing responsibilities and becoming even more indispensable.

The ’60s were also the years when the Central Library, erected in the ’20s, began to show its age. Some of the murals were covered in so much grime that it would eventually protect them in the fire, “like a Teflon shield.” The electrical wiring couldn’t safely power anything stronger than a 40-watt bulb.

The people Orlean talks to — librarians, social workers, security guards — all seem to be heroically dedicated to their mission, trying to help the library adapt to a changing culture while they’re also expected to do more with less. She includes a few dutiful sections near the end about technology and philanthropy, reciting some talking points from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but you get the sense that Orlean doesn’t feel entirely at home with the requisite tech platitudes (“the worldwide portal to the future”) or the earnest belief in smooth efficiency.

After all, Orlean is drawn to inefficiency, to friction; she gets excited when she encounters people whose indelible singularities don’t quite add up. As much as she tries to work her way in this book toward a Very Important Point on Why Libraries Matter, she ends up getting distracted by someone like the saxophone-playing security guard whose “real passion” is juggling and is currently reading a biography of Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

This isn’t a knock on Orlean’s method — far from it. What makes “The Library Book” so enjoyable is the sense of discovery that propels it, the buoyancy when Orlean is surprised or moved by what she finds. In Senegal, she writes, “the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned.” But that’s only if one’s shelves of memories stay private, locked to the outside. Orlean clearly has other plans for hers. “If you can take something from that internal collection and share it,” she writes, “it takes on a life of its own.” ... rlean.html
John Francis

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Re: The Library Book

Post by jbuck919 » Sun Oct 14, 2018 3:34 am

As John F undoubtedly knows, catastrophic library fires are nothing new. The fire at the library of Alexandria in Hellenistic times probably cost us untold loss of things like scrolls of the unknown plays of Sophocles.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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