On Susan Orlean’s The Library Book

(Times Literary Supplement, 2019)

The most destructive library fire in US history might have started in the Fiction stacks. When firefighters arrived at the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) on April 29, 1986, they detected – as Susan Orlean writes in The Library Book – “smoke threading along a shelf of books that started with a Robert Coover novel and ended with one by John Fowles”.

It was not unexpected: in the early 1970s, the Los Angeles Times referred to the Central Library, in downtown LA, as “part temple, part cathedral, and part fire hazard”. But the blaze was ferocious: “The temperature reached 451 degrees and the books began smoldering”, Orlean writes. “Their covers burst like popcorn.” More than 300 firefighters descended on the old, cramped, dry building; fifty were injured. More than a million books and items were damaged or destroyed, including 12,000 cookbooks; an 1860 edition of Don Quixote; 18,000 social science books; and 5.5 million patent listings dating back to the eighteenth century. In a swift act of solidarity with the LAPL and its holdings, volunteers showed up the morning after the conflagration and began the arduous task of removing damaged items from the ruined building: “They formed a human chain”, Orlean writes, “passing the books hand over hand from one person to the next, through the smoky building and out the door”.

The Library Book contains two narratives, told in brief, alternating chapters. The first, and more dynamic, concerns the blaze, its aftermath and the official inquiry into its murky origins; it is here that Orlean’s facility for writing and research are most clearly on display (her finest prose is brought to bear on the fire itself). But reporting can only take her so far: she is trying to unravel an event with hazy contours. Arson investigators blamed a twenty-seven-year-old drifter named Harry Peak, who told friends he was at the Central Library the morning of the blaze. But Peak kept changing his tale, and there was never sufficient evidence to convict him; he spent only three days in jail. Orlean, a longtime staff writer at the New Yorker, learns that the science of arson investigation has advanced significantly since the 1980s. One expert, after examining the evidence she presented to him concerning the fire’s origin in the fiction stacks, told her: “Figuring out exactly where a fire started is a fool’s errand”. This complicates the story she is trying to tell and Orlean eventually realizes that the facts concerning Peak’s guilt or innocence cannot be determined. “In the end, I had no idea what was true or even what I decided to believe. I finally accepted the ambiguity.” A related snag is the slippery nature of Peak himself, an aspiring actor who inhabited the shadows and died of AIDS in 1993. The author’s interviews with Peak’s sister and boyfriend yield thin gruel: the suspect did not leave a paper trail. Peak defies thick description of the sort that Orlean practices. His brief, ghostly existence remains a hole at the centre of her narrative.

The Central Library’s history, and its varied activities today, dominate the other narrative. Library historiography is rarely uninteresting, and it is pleasing to read about the individuals who sustained the LAPL in the early years. One, Charles Lummis, was a maverick and libertine, but also a far-sighted institution builder; another, Althea Warren, believed that “librarians’ single greatest responsibility was to read voraciously”. In these chapters there are flashes of good writing. Surveying the decrepitude of the main branch in the 1960s, Orlean observes: “The library quietly fell apart in the blue stillness of downtown”.

What is a public library? When Orlean began her reporting, she believed it was “a storeroom of books”. But after observing the daily movements of the LAPL’s tall, goateed director, John Szabo, Orlean came to see that public libraries have adapted to digital realities: Szabo, she writes, “reckoned that the future of libraries was a combination of a people’s university, a community hub, and an information base, happily partnered with the Internet rather than in competition with it”.

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Orlean, the author of The Orchid Thief (1998) and Rin Tin Tin (2011), did several years of reporting at the Central Branch – alas, she mostly ignores the seventy or so neighbourhood libraries in the LAPL system – but she is unable to weave her bright narrative threads together. Characters appear and disappear in ephemeral strokes; one can hear the sound of a reporter’s notebook being emptied on the page. We meet a security guard who befriended someone from Sri Lanka and is now planning his own retirement there; a clerk in the shipping department who doesn’t like books, and who declares, “You read and read and read and read and then what?”; a senior librarian in Special Collections who is happily surveying newly arrived boxes of paraphernalia from a 1960s anti-war group, “the L.A. Resistance”. None of these people comes to life on the page.

Certain chapters cry out for editorial intervention: in a strange contrivance, Orlean burns a copy of Ray Bradbury’s novel about censorship and state-controlled reading, Fahrenheit 451, in her suburban backyard, because she “wanted to see and feel what Harry [Peak] would have seen and felt that day if he had been at the library”. Another chapter, on the history of library fires, has the scent of Wikipedia. A concluding chapter on the future of libraries is well intentioned – Orlean wants public libraries to flourish – but it feels more like a dutiful report from a foundation than vibrant reportage.

Politics is curiously absent from The Library Book. In the US, large urban public library systems tend to be unwieldy institutions whose leaders engage in never-ending skirmishes for financial resources. In recent decades, the LAPL has struggled. There have been draconian cuts to the library budget, leading to curtailed hours and fewer days of operation. The situation has improved recently, but most neighbourhood libraries in LA remain closed on Sunday – a serious impediment for people holding down full-time jobs. Orlean has written an institutional history of the LAPL, yet she ignores the gritty machinations which determine its budget. Nor does the library’s governance interest her. Have the LAPL’s leaders skilfully defended its interests vis-à-vis the Mayor and City Council? Are library users receiving first-rate services? Are its executives competent, and how much are they paid? She doesn’t say. Orlean is a narrative journalist, not a muckraker. Still, one can’t help but wonder how a hard-nosed historian and writer like Mike Davis, the author of the LA classic City of Quartz, would have sifted this material.

Public libraries in the US are facing significant challenges, and media coverage, by well-meaning commentators, leans towards the fawning. Orlean’s book, described by its publisher as a “love letter to a beloved institution”, is a reflection of this trend. Susan Orlean conveys the impression that the LAPL is capably administered, and perhaps it is. But since her book is a “love letter”, we can’t be sure.