Writer Susan Orlean’s latest, The Library Book (Simon & Schuster, October), investigates the massive fire that swept through Los Angeles Public Library’s (LAPL) Central branch in 1986, destroying or damaging more than 1 million books in a still-unsolved case. But the book is more than a true-crime story. Orlean explores the life of main suspect Harry Peak, the history and meaning of libraries in the US, and the inner workings of LAPL. American Libraries caught up with Orlean just before she spoke at United for Libraries’ Gala Author Toast at the 2018 Annual Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans.
In the book you write, “Sometimes it’s harder to notice a place you think you know well…. I had to force myself to look harder and try to see beyond the concept of library that was so latent in my brain.” What is the most surprising thing that you learned about libraries or librarians while you were working on this book?
To be honest, the entire book is one giant exclamation point. As much as I felt that a library was one of the most familiar places I could think of, I had no idea how they functioned. I think for people who are deep in the library world, you probably have forgotten that for us civilians, it really exists on that most superficial level. Which is, it’s this wonderful space that you walk in, and there are books there, and you take them.
The idea, for instance, that there was a shipping department, and that there’s this massive undertaking of moving books around a library system. Or that it takes an entire week to process a book that arrives before it can get put on a shelf. It’s a little like saying I know how to drive, but if you said to me, “So, take apart the engine,” I would say, “Oh my god, I had no idea it had this gear and this manifold.”
What do you want people to know about libraries?
I want people to know how wonderful libraries are, first and foremost. We assume they’re there for us, we enjoy them, we have them. Do we appreciate them as much as we should? I’m not sure. I’d like to remind people of how glorious it really is to say we are devoting ourselves to make these spaces that are purely committed to saving and circulating stories. That’s an amazing thing, and in many ways, it’s the highest expression of what society is.
Is this book a work of advocacy?
All my work, in a way, advocates for looking hard at the things around you and appreciating them. In this case, there’s probably an even more pointed effort. I didn’t go into it thinking, “Oh, I’m gonna write a book to remind people how cool libraries are.” I think I walked in and thought, “Oh my god, libraries are so amazing, and I haven’t really appreciated how amazing they are. Now I want to unpack them and understand how they work, and how this one was almost lost.”
It also happened to fall in a moment that made the unique quality of libraries that much more precious. So really, you could either say it was serendipity that we’re in a moment in our culture that favors excluding people, perhaps runs contrary to what libraries seem to embody to me: a sense of community and communitarian purpose, and holding the value of the community above individual aggrandizement. But this, more pointedly, is a kind of love letter that says these places are really worth loving—not just noticing, but protecting—because there’s always this quality of endangerment that I think people feel about any public institution that doesn’t make money.
A lot of your work goes into these very deep dives into topics. Have you relied on libraries in the past, and what’s your relationship to them now that you’ve seen the guts?
While I was working on the book I reached the point where, I have a studio in my home, but I was going crazy. I wasn’t getting any work done, and I thought, “I’ve got to get out of here. I have to work somewhere else.”
So I rented space in a coworking space. And it was fine, but I didn’t enjoy paying. Then I was working in the branch library by my house, and I was laughing and thinking, except that they don’t serve beer, the library was the sort of ideal coworking space. You don’t have a private room that you can lock, but in terms of wanting to be around other people and yet being able to be very focused, the library was ideal.
Libraries have always been important to me as a resource for research. Definitely on Rin Tin Tin (Simon & Schuster, 2011), I relied enormously on the UCLA and University of Southern California libraries that had wonderful archive collections, and the Riverside Museum, which I couldn’t have done the book without. And this book—it was 30 boxes, maybe, of material that had just been collected about the library by librarians. Those resources are absolutely invaluable because that kind of material is not online.
Now that you’ve been away from the book for a few months, do you still feel the same way about what happened in the fire?
I go back and forth still, and my back and forths are: It wasn’t arson; there was a short in the wiring and the analysis of it was wrong. Look, libraries have the potential for fire to go completely out of control very quickly. And this was a library full of electrical problems.
So that’s one swing of my teeter totter. And the other is, and this is the only thing that made sense to me about Harry Peak, was that he was goofing around, he was irritated, or was sort of offended or in a bad mood that the security guard didn’t let him in, and he was just messing around and lit a match. He was a smoker, he had matches on him. And then thought, “Oh my god, I’ve got to get out of here.” Stupidly, because he probably could have put it out quickly. But that, out of shame and panic, he thought, “I’ve got to get out of here.”
I don’t think he’s a pyromaniac. I don’t think he went in there thinking, “I’m going to burn this place down.” [Peak and the city settled the case in the 1990s.]
It remains unresolved for me, and I’m fine with that. It would have been interesting if I’d uncovered some evidence that proved beyond a doubt one or another version of what happened, but that was never my ambition. I would’ve been happy, but I didn’t set out thinking “I’m going to solve this fire.”
Did you do the book recommendations at the beginning of the chapters, or did librarians help you with those?
I did them, which was really fun.
They’re a nice commentary.
That’s exactly what I was hoping they would be, so thank you. I spent a lot of time working on them, and some were very tongue-in-cheek, and some were just sort of connected or foreshadows. It was a lot of fun to dig around in the catalog. But also, part of what I wanted to do was to demonstrate the incredible breadth of material in the library. And I made an effort to show things from a wide range of years. To me, it was just staggering to think I could find a book on any subject. Anything referred to in the text, I could find a book referring to it.
You also host the Crybabies podcast with Sarah Thyre, where famous people share the music, movies, and other cultural tidbits that makes them cry. You’ve done almost 100 episodes now. So, what’s the data? What are the big trends in crying?
The number one repetition is Pixar movies, particularly Toy Story 3 and the montage in the movie Up. It goes by in two minutes in the movie, but it’s utterly devastating. Clearly Pixar has designed those to make you cry, but they’re also really artfully done, and you’re crying for real reasons.
What’s the weirdest thing that’s come up?
A decision by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We had somebody [comedian Guy Branum] who read her brief on a particular decision and was in tears. We thought, that’s amazing and fantastic, because it was so completely unexpected.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about libraries or librarians?
I will say, and I mean this very sincerely, I think librarians are heroes. I really do. Because I think what they do and why they do it, is so … now I’m gonna cry. They’re people who do work that they will not be rich or famous for doing, and it’s incredibly important to have it done, and it requires a lot. I know librarians are dealing on the very front lines of everything that ails society, and they do it with a remarkable amount of forbearance.