Susan Orlean has a knack for finding compelling stories in unlikely places. In 1998 she turned the niche-sounding topic of banditry among the orchid- growing community of Florida into the gripping true crime narrative The Orchid Thief, subsequently filmed by Spike Jonze as the arthouse hit Adaptation. Twenty years on, Orlean again pokes about in an area that most writers would have put in their “interesting but not quite interesting enough” file of possible book ideas. For while the 1986 LA library fire was spectacular for the seven hours it lasted, it was also oddly indeterminate. No one died, the library got back on its feet, the man suspected of arson was never charged, quite possibly because he didn’t actually do it.
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.
It is an account that every bibliophile will need to read with a handkerchief. The extent of the damage was immense; even more interesting were the endeavours of the staff to preserve the books which, if not charred and turned to ashes, were now waterlogged. The then director managed to persuade local businesses in fish and vegetable supply to allow the books to be frozen for a temporary period to avoid mould developing. The temperature at the height of the fire topped 2,500 degrees. Amongst the losses were a Doré illustrated Don Quixote, a Shakespeare folio, a 1500s Palladio, five and a half million patent listings, a Coverdale Bible and 12,000 cookbooks.
In Susan Orlean’s enthralling and inspirational account of the Los Angeles Public Library, she alludes to a common euphemism used by the Senegalese when someone dies, namely that “his or her library has burned”. This poetic expression, implying the loss of a great store of knowledge, came into literal focus on 29 April 1986, when the LA library caught fire, destroying more than 400,000 books and devastating the community reliant on its resources. Yet, like a phoenix, it rose from the flames, greater and more beloved than ever. This book is a homage not just to the spirit and resilience of those who rebuilt the library, but to those whose lives are transformed by these public palaces of reading, on both sides of the lending desk.
Susan Orlean has once again found rich material where no one else has bothered to look for it. Her book is less a straightforward story than an exercise in mining her intense feelings for a subject. Once again, she’s demonstrated that the feelings of a writer, if that writer is sufficiently talented and her feelings sufficiently strong, can supply her own drama. You really never know how seriously interesting a subject might be until such a person takes a serious interest in it.