Review: Ruth Franklin on Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book”

Imagine that a patron of the Los Angeles Public Library—the institution around which Susan Orlean arrays her latest work, simply named The Library Book—came upon Orlean’s own beguiling, unlikely nonfiction in the library’s catalogue. First Saturday Night, a cultural history of what Americans do with our weekends that established Orlean, who was soon to become a staff writer at The New Yorker, as master of her own brilliantly unconventional form, in which she pulls a central narrative thread out of a haystack of research, reportage, and personal impressions. Next The Orchid Thief, which developed multiple dimensions of a man’s obsession with a rare flower and almost immediately became a classic of modern journalism. Most recently, Rin Tin Tin, a biography (of sorts) of a canine actor turned American legend. Looking at this list, our imaginary reader might be forgiven for wondering what these subjects could possibly have in common.

The answer: nothing but Orlean’s sprightly curiosity, which brings her to each new subject the way even the most dignified dog might approach a bone, tossing it up in the air, examining it from all angles, and ultimately settling in for a long, happy chew. Her particular gift is for sustaining a narrative through a legion of diverse details, following each tale wherever it leads with seemingly boundless patience, confident that, from the mounting heap of serendipitous discoveries and the growing cast of unexpected characters, a story will grow. I opened The Library Book uncertain that my interest in the inner workings of a city library was sufficient to get me through the book’s three hundred pages; I closed it charmed.

At the heart of Orlean’s story is the 1986 fire that raged through the library for the better part of a day, destroying around four hundred thousand books. In her telling, the fire becomes an animate being, wantonly destructive: it “nosed around” and “scrambled” and “decided to move laterally” and “erupted.” Because the conditions produced an optimal burning ratio of available oxygen to fuel, the fire eventually burned so hot that it became colorless: “You could look right through it, as if it were a sheet of glass.” Orlean interviewed just about everyone connected with the fire—firefighters; librarians and administrators, many of whom were traumatized by the destruction (some got divorced in its aftermath); the family of the alleged arsonist—and even burned a book herself to see what it would look like, despite her instinctive distaste for the act. After deliberation, she chose Fahrenheit 451, set it aflame on an aluminum pan, and was stunned to find it incinerated in just a few seconds: “The pages burned so fast they barely crackled; the sound was soft, like a sizzle, or the crinkly light sound of water spraying out of a shower.”

Orlean surrounds the story of the fire with a constellation of anecdotes and personalities. In her account, the library and its daily operations have the complex organization of an air traffic control tower, each person performing a distinct and essential assignment, from packing up books for delivery around the city to patiently scanning and tagging archival photographs, examining each for significant details. She cannot resist a startling fact: Movie studios were once stole books so routinely that the library hired an employee to make the rounds collecting them; baby-name books are among those most frequently replaced, because, as a staffer tells her, “Pregnant women don’t want to handle a grubby book”; back in 1873, when the library first opened, patrons were discouraged from turning into “fiction fiends.” Her appreciation of human eccentricity extends even to the suspected arsonist, a would-be actor from the town of Sante Fe Springs, “a town in the paddle-flat valley … hemmed in by the dun-colored Santa Rosa Hills and a looming sense of monotony.” He ultimately dies of AIDS.

“Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue: They take on a kind of human vitality,” Orlean writes. The book’s through line is her deep affection for libraries, which she traces back to childhood visits to the local branch with her mother, recalling the thrill of “leaving a place with things you hadn’t paid for” and the “loud chunk-chunk” of the checkout machine. With libraries currently redefining themselves for a world in which the physical book is no longer primary, The Library Book comes as part elegy, part argument. Books, as she sees them, are both a symbol of memory and its embodiment, the places in which our “cultural DNA” is encoded: they tell us what we know and who we have been. The Senegalese have a poignant euphemism for death: they say that a person’s library has burned.

Ruth Franklin is the author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life and A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction.

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