To hear Susan Orlean tell it, libraries aren’t dusty, quiet places; they’re vibrant, spirited, and bursting with secrets. Her latest book, The Library Book, is an ambitious and wide-ranging exploration of “the biggest puzzle the library is always seeking to assemble—the looping, unending story of who we are.”
Orlean, known for her lively profile writing, could have centered The Library Book on one of its many compelling historic characters—for instance, Harry Peak (known liar, aspiring actor, suspected arsonist), Charles Lummis (eccentric writer, adulterous adventurer, unqualified librarian), or Mary Jones (adult in the room, deeply-qualified librarian, fired for being female). Instead, Orlean set the book against a long-unsolved mystery: how did the Los Angeles Central Library catch fire on April 29, 1986, destroying 400,000 books, damaging 700,000 others, and turning innumerable patent listings, unbound manuscripts, and glossy photographs to dust?
Around this question, Orlean ties vignettes from the present-day LA library to historical accounts of how American libraries grew and who built them to meditations on the institution’s meaning. “As much as the arson is the spine, the flesh of the story is everything else,” she says.
Orlean has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1992. Before and throughout, she’s written books, including The Orchid Thief, which became the film Adaptation. (A fictionalized Orlean was played by Meryl Streep.) Her magazine piece about a group of surfer girls was adapted into the film Blue Crush. Orlean is the recipient of Harvard’s Nieman fellowship and the Guggenheim fellowship, among other honors.
I spoke with Orlean about her book, her research process, and why libraries matter more than ever.
The Rumpus: How did you decide to hang this book on the arson of the Los Angeles library?
Susan Orlean: A fire is an irresistible device—it’s a visual, extraordinary, and devastating event. And Harry Peak became an interesting figure to me because he embodied the dreamy, drifty quality that Los Angeles has.
The arson also marked a particular passage for the LA library. This building was so controversial; many people wanted to tear it down and many other people were enamored of it. It was teetering in the brink of urban renewal.
Rumpus: We never learn whether Harry Peak set the fire. You go back and forth in your own assessment. And, even at the end, some of the basic facts of his biography remain in question. Instead of presenting a tied-in-a-bow narrative, his story shows how much of the joy is in the journey of research and information-gathering.
Orlean: The book is, in its own kind of winking way, about storytelling and story creating. In Harry Peak’s case, there was probably something borderline pathological about his compulsive storytelling; it seemed like every moment of his day became an opportunity to write a new story. And while I didn’t want to hit the nail on the head too hard, he was uniquely interesting to me as a character because of that.
Rumpus: This book pulls in information across centuries, continents, and conferences. Across the space of the years you spent assembling it, did you follow any false leads?
Orlean: Yes, I spent a lot of time researching mobile libraries in third-world countries. I found it so heartening to see that people will ride donkeys or use camels to carry books; that’s how important libraries are. In literally every country in the world, the ideas of sharing and disseminating books persists.
I was going to go traveling with one of those mobile libraries in Zimbabwe and I put a lot of work into planning it. But it was like a meter had been running in my head and suddenly it clicked off; I realized I was losing my story. In the end, mobile libraries were reduced to a small section.
I find it hard to not try to give giant context when I’m telling a story and, as a result, I can start drifting far from the center. I learned a lot more about almost everything in there than I could include. I’m not sorry that I made the effort and spent the time, because it informed what I did end up including, even though it contributed to five years of work. And I always feel like that. I believe a writer should know a lot more than what she puts on the page.
Rumpus: One piece of information that surprised me is that libraries are more popular with people under thirty than with older people. Why do you think that is?
Orlean: I have a few theories, but the one I think is the most comprehensive is that you have a whole generation of people who don’t work in offices, who are very enthusiastic about a sharing economy, and who look for places to work outside of their homes. A library provides the same environment as a coffee shop with bigger tables and less coffee. I actually told the head of the LA library that I really would love for them to serve good coffee there. He said he was enthusiastic about it.
As this economy shifts away from workplaces, there’s an appreciation of public spaces where you can work. And I think there’s a marvelous attitude that has arisen, which is, you don’t have to own every single thing in your life. You can share things. Books are very well suited to that, as is borrowing e-media. The first time I realized you could borrow e-books from the library, I almost fainted. To get something like that for free is amazing.
Also, libraries have worked hard to make themselves appealing and relevant. There was probably a long period where all they needed to do was have books. The development of the Internet made libraries wake up and say, what are we? What can we offer that’s different, that makes coming to the library appealing? And I think they’ve done a really good job of that.
Rumpus: You write about the gender politics of library work. What did you learn that surprised you?
Orlean: It had never occurred to me that early on librarianship was very much dominated by men. It didn’t surprise me that men ran libraries, only because I think there’s almost nothing in our culture that doesn’t begin by being run by men, but the fact that it was a thoroughly male-dominated profession was totally new information to me. I was very, very surprised. LA was a little bit radical in that it had women running the library for long stretches early on.
Rumpus: At some point, even the LA library pushed one of the female heads out to re-establish male control.
Orlean: Right. That was a classic. And then there’s the fact that there was absolutely no embarrassment in saying to her, “Well, we’ve all agreed it would be better to have a man running the library.” That particular passage of time—”the Great Library War”—was one of those pieces of hidden history that I love learning about.
Rumpus: What’s the most difficult piece you’ve ever worked on, and how does this book compare?
Orlean: At some point, every piece is the most difficult piece; you reach a point of despair and confusion on every one. It just depends when and where and how quickly you surmount it. This was extremely challenging. This sort of felt like quantum physics, because I was working with several different timelines, including one that I was struggling with up ‘til the very minute that I broke it open. I knew that I couldn’t write the book merely chronologically, because it would be deadly dull, but how do you weave three very different timelines together?
Books are just so much harder than a magazine piece, by definition. You have a lot more freedom in a sense, but, every step of the way, you’re confronting the possibility that a reader will be bored and say, I don’t want to spend so much time in this world.
Rumpus: You wrote that before you found this subject, you were ready to swear off book-writing altogether. Did this reinvigorate your interest or was this your final act?
Orlean: There’s no easy book. Or at least for me, there’s no easy book. So the jury is out. Someone recently said to me, do you have a next book idea? I thought, you’ve got to be kidding.
In truth, there is a sense of accomplishment in writing a book. You’ve created something permanent and individual; that’s really, really satisfying. But it’s a giant commitment. Unlike when I finished my last book and I declared that I would never write another book, in this case I’m just saying, I’m in recovery.
Rumpus: Politically and culturally, there have been so many changes between when you pitched this book five years ago and now.
Orlean: It’s almost uncanny. I always felt that writing about a public institution was a political small ‘p’ political gesture, because you’re shining a light on a civic institution and it’s a public good to do that, no matter what. But, God, who could’ve imagined what happened over those five years? I feel enormously gratified that I’m publishing a book now that implicitly talks about values that are being degraded by the Trump administration. Libraries really do embody, in their outreach to immigrants, in their inclusiveness, in their championing of free society and the openness of information and lack of judgment, a kind of political aesthetic that stands in distinct contrast to that.
Rumpus: What’s your favorite library?
Orlean: I love the Morgan Library. I love the Aarhus Library in Denmark, which is brand new. It’s still very much a library, but it has a different feel in terms of presenting libraries as these civic crossroads in a really active way.
And I’m sentimental about my childhood library, the Bertram Woods Branch Library. It’s probably a combination of having a soft spot for little branch libraries and that it’s the one that I grew up with. If I had to pick one, that would be my favorite.
Photograph of Susan Orlean © Noah Fecks.