A Burning Desire
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
A Review by Pam Munter
It’s ironic that the subject for this review is a library, given this monthly offering appears in the Greenville Public Library literary magazine. So it’s easy to imagine the entire town of Greenville grieving if that austere public building burned in a massive fire—how it would affect everyone in its vicinity, how the community would gather to watch the inferno and how everyone would join together in the aftermath to rebuild.
The saga of a similar, but much larger, conflagration is at the core of a new work by Susan Orlean, The Library Book (Simon & Schuster, 2018). In truth, it’s a series of love stories, starting with memories about the closeness Orlean felt to her mother while on their frequent trips to the public library in Cleveland, Ohio. “I grew up in libraries, or at least it feels that way.” As she matures, the affection is transferred to books and to the wondrous worlds they can reveal. When Orlean’s family moved to Los Angeles and her son wanted to interview a librarian, it serendipitously opened doors to the stately and historically-preserved downtown public library. In a casual conversation with the librarian, she discovered an unsolved arson occurring in 1986, destroying nearly a half-million books and damaging 700,000 more in that very place. It’s still the single biggest library fire in US history. As he reaches for a book from the shelf and inhales its pages, the librarian tells her, “You can still smell the smoke in some of them.”
A staff writer for the New Yorker, Orlean has authored numerous books and articles and, at that moment, had decided she would give it up. But then, there was something about the story of the fire that proved to be irresistible.
In this loosely structured book, she covers not only the fire and its colorful cast of characters, but a brief history of libraries and the historical background for the construction of the LA Library (designed by Bernard Goodhue, also the architect for the State Capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska). It can feel like a tour through the stacks, wandering at times, but always intriguing. Her language is alternately lyrical and witty. Describing the LA Library, she writes, “The rotunda is one of those rare places that have a kind of sacred atmosphere, full of a quiet so dense that it almost feels underwater.” But then comes her first impression as she enters the interior, “chattering like someone on a successful first date.” She’s gobsmacked at the grandeur and taken aback by its emotional clout.
The most successful sections of the book occur when she returns to the fire—the description of its spread, its searing heat and resistance to being extinguished. She puts us right there, as if we were watching it on television. “Water sprayed on the fire boiled like a kettle put on for tea…it was suffocating, ferocious, feeding on itself.”
Her research on the primary arson suspect, Harry Peak, is compelling, especially when she employs quotes from an interview with his sister about their ne’er-do-well family and includes details about the prosecutor’s decision to charge Peak even though he had insufficient direct evidence.
Here’s where the reader may feel bamboozled. She opens her story with Peak, taking us on a detailed and nuanced journey through his sorry, sociopathic life. Then, at the end of the book, she writes, “As hard as I tried, I couldn’t completely convince myself that Harry had started the fire.” She had documented his frequently-changing alibis, his admission of guilt to the prosecutors, his personality-disordered compulsive lying, his need for attention and his impulsivity. Still, she couldn’t imagine anyone “who would want to damage a beautiful important building that was full of life.”
There are smaller gems throughout, equally riveting: how the librarians coped with the loss following the fire and the development of a chronic “library cough” from the sooty air; the complexities of serving as a City Librarian for a large, metropolitan system—a job that can include not only budgeting, but property management, creative innovation, and resource planning; a surprising look at what doesn’t get returned—clippings from famous murders (e.g., Manson and the Black Dahlia), Elvis recordings, Carlos Castenada’s books; and, unexpectedly, books not returned by movie studios, considering a film adaptation. It’s fun to share her delight in entering the library elevator where all the walls are plastered with entries from the anachronistic card catalog.
There are personal and a few awkward asides here. She has told us that she wrote this book to memorialize her mother, who died in the middle of her writing it. But then she adds, “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…” This introspective outburst and several like it are out of synch with the tone of the book and probably should have been saved for sharing with a friend or her therapist.
The transformation of the role of the traditional library is a relevant contribution. The rise of microfiche, then digitalization, of course, both a fundamental change, along with the proliferation of free computer access. In many communities, libraries and their grounds offer places to spend the day in safety. Metropolitan libraries are finding ways to welcome the homeless, even providing some basic social services along with reading support. In LA, bookmobiles park outside homeless camps, encouraging and welcoming those who are unable to make it to the library in person.
She takes us along on what sometimes seems like free-associative, if agreeable, departures but when she returns to her true loves—the unique feeling of being in a library and the seductive power of a book—she has us in the palm of her hand.
“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.” The public library, she reminds us, is an often underappreciated community asset.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986) and is a contributor to many others. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her many lengthy retrospectives on the lives of often-forgotten Hollywood performers and others have appeared in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. More recently, her essays and short stories have been published in more than 100 publications. Her play Life Without was produced by S2S2S, and nominated four times by the Desert Theatre League, including the Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing and Outstanding Play (staged reading). She’s a Pushcart nominee and has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want To Be, was published by Adelaide Books in 2018.