Susan Orlean’s newest book, The Library Book (Simon & Schuster, $28), is about a fire and a library but like all things this New York Times bestselling author writes (The Orchid Thief, Rin Tin Tin), it’s so much more. A lover of libraries since she was very young, Orlean had been toying with the idea of writing about the subject when her son, then six-years-old, announced that his class assignment was to write about a city employee and instead of the typical fireman or policeman interview, he wanted to write about a librarian. Then, after moving to Los Angeles, Orlean was at the Los Angeles Central Public Library when the librarian opened a book, took a sniff and announced that you could still smell the smoke. Orlean asked if that was from a time when smoking was allowed. The answer was no, instead the aroma dated back to April 29, 1986 when an inferno blazed for seven hours, reaching 2500 degrees. It took half of the Los Angeles’s firefighting resources to extinguish the blaze and by then flames and water had destroyed 400,000 books and damaged another 700,000.
“It was the combination of all of these that gave me the final push; it was as if I was being nudged, repeatedly, to look at libraries and find a narrative about them to write,” says Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of seven books. “Learning about the fire was definitely the final nudge that made me sure this was the story I wanted to tell.”
But how to tell the story? For Orlean, who is obsessive about details and research—it took her almost as long to write the book as it did to rebuild the library—she had to figure out her focus.
“That’s exactly what the challenge was–it was a topic that was both broad and deep, with so much history and so many ways I could pursue it,” she says. “I finally decided to treat it as a browse through a library, with stops in different ‘departments’ of the story, such as the history, the fire, the present day, my own library memories. By visualizing the story that way I was able to move through the topic and engage as many aspects of it as I could.”
Her attention to details, both past and present is amazing and intriguing. We learn that Mary Foy, only 18, became the head of LAPL and also, because the fire was set by an arsonist, she delves into previous book burnings such as when in 213 B.C. Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered any history book he didn’t agree with be destroyed. The act, says Orlean, resulted in over four hundred scholars being buried alive.
In keeping with her compulsive exploration, Orlean even tried burning a book herself, just to see what happens and how it is done.
Asked to name her favorite library, Orlean mentions the Bertram Woods branch library in Shaker Heights, Ohio.
“That’s where I fell in love with libraries and became a passionate reader,” she says. “Of course, I’ll always feel a special attachment to the L.A. Public Library, because of the book, and it’s a great library to be in love with.”
Orlean also hopes people appreciate the gifts library give us.
“I want people to think about the nature of memory, both individual memory and common memory,” she says. “Our individual memories are as rich as a library, full of volumes of information and vignettes and fantasies. And our common memory is our libraries, where all the stories of our culture reside. I love reminding people of the value of both.”
What: Susan Orlean discusses her new book followed by a book signing.
When: November 13th at 6 pm
Where: Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago Public Library, 400 S. State Street, Chicago IL
FYI: (312) 747-4300; chipublib.org