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Image: Mark Tock
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BooksMay 6, 2019

Review: The Library Book is a thrilling tale of fire, loss and renewal

Image: Mark Tock
Image: Mark Tock

As Wellington and Waikanae face a winter without two beloved libraries, Marion McLeod reviews The Library Book, a hymn to a library that burned. 

This is a book for Wellingtonians. I don’t usually adhere to the geographical school of reviewing but this book, sadly, is published at a perfect time for Wellington, for its librarians, councillors, and readers – and for the lonely citizens, young and old, who shelter in the library. The welcoming Athfield building at the heart of the city has been closed because of earthquake risk and we’re all coming to terms with the loss.

It’s also a book for Waikanae, on the Kāpiti coast, where the discovery of a toxic mould has closed the library: 27,000 books have to be decontaminated.

The Library Book is about a library lost to fire. Its author Susan Orlean, who will be a guest at the Auckland Writers Festival next week, writes about the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles public library, a massive conflagration which destroyed almost half a million books and damaged 700,000 more.

Curiously, The Library Book is not at all a downer. Orlean, a staffer on the New Yorker since 1992, could write about paint drying and make it exciting. Come to think of it, she does just that here: she describes ink and other substances drying as experts patiently tend to charred volumes. And I swear it’s thrilling.  

In short, The Library Book is non-fiction of the highest order – by turns informative, personal, philosophical, sad, funny.

It’s also a whodunnit. Libraries have long featured in whodunnits: from Sherlock Holmes through Reverend Green with his candlestick in the library, to Morse and his spinoffs, with their polished shelving and leather-bound tomes. Orlean’s version would be shelved under true crime. Her corpse is the library, her culprit the arsonist. She opens by zeroing in on prime suspect Harry Peak, a name worthy of Raymond Chandler, your quintessential LA crime writer. You couldn’t make up Harry Peak, though: he’s much weirder than fiction.

“Even in Los Angeles, where there is no shortage of remarkable hairdos, Harry Peak attracted attention.” This, the book’s opening sentence, is expanded over a couple of crisp pages. Harry Peak, tall and very blond, a wannabe actor in a town of wannabes, is a gifted storyteller who has concocted many and vastly varying alibis for the arson, though none sufficient to prevent his arrest. Orlean interviews his sister and erstwhile flatmates. Harry’s likeable enough, they all tell her, just can’t tell truth from bullshit. He wends his slippery way through to the end of The Library Book. Is he guilty? Has there even been a crime? Experts say that with any fire, it’s almost impossible to know if arson is involved. It would be wrong to divulge Orlean’s final verdict. But Harry Peak is definitely a pathological liar, and way too incredible to sustain a full-length narrative.

Susan Orlean. Image: Noah Fecks

Harry Peak is the skeleton to which she attaches the people and stories gleaned from her investigations. I’d hardly characterise her storytelling as slippery but it’s sinuous and deft to the nth degree. She’s divided her story into 32 chapters segueing through, for example, a history of libraries, her attempts to burn a book, her relationship with her mother, the science of arson detection, teenage readers, and Ray Bradbury.

Take Ray Bradbury. He grew up in Los Angeles. His family couldn’t afford to send him to college so he spent every day for the next 13 years at the Los Angeles public library, reading his way through each department. Later, a father of four, he was sporadically writing a dystopian novel called The Fireman. When he finished it, he felt it needed a better title, so he called the LA Fire Department chief and asked if he could supply the temperature at which paper burned. The answer became the new title, Fahrenheit 451.

When the library burned in 1986, “everything in the Fiction section from A through I was destroyed, including all of the books by Ray Bradbury.”

That’s one abbreviated version of many, many asides, anecdotes and oddments threaded through this book. It’s a bit like reading 32 short and lively essays – New Yorker-style essays – bound in one volume.       

The Library Book is Orlean’s seventh book. After number six, she was done with books. No more. But in 2011 her husband accepted a job in Los Angeles and the family headed west from New York. Their young son started at a new school and was given an assignment: interview somebody who worked for the city. He chose to talk to a librarian.  

“As my son and I drove to meet the librarian, I was flooded by a sense of absolute familiarity, a gut-level recollection of this journey, of parents and child on their way to the library. I had taken this trip so many times before but now it was turned on its head, and I was the parent bringing my child on that special trip.” Inside the library, nothing had changed. “The sense of gentle, steady busyness, like water on a rolling boil, was just the same.” Orlean hadn’t used libraries for years but they had cast a spell on her childhood and the spell came flooding back.  

“In the library, time is dammed up – not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”

Not long afterwards, Orlean happened to meet Ken Brecher, the man who ran the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. He offered to give her a tour of Central Library. Nearing the end of this tour, Brecher reached for a book from the fiction shelves, cracked it open, held it to his face and inhaled.

“You can still smell the smoke in some of them.”

Orlean was puzzled.

“They smell like smoke because the library used to let patrons smoke?”

“No!” Brecher said. “Smoke from the fire!”

“The fire?”

Orlean had never heard of the great fire, April 29, 1986. She was living in New York at the time. But she read newspapers. She cared about books. Why didn’t she know about a fire that burned for over seven hours?

Because of Chernobyl, that’s why. On April 26, 1986, the world’s worst nuclear accident had taken place and taken centre-stage in the world’s media. “The books burned while most of us were waiting to see if we were about to witness the end of the world.”

Having tracked down the skeleton reports, Orlean wanted more: she was hooked on the library fire. She interviewed librarians, current and retired, and was enthralled. Librarians are heroes in Orlean’s book. Lively, witty, friendly people, whose lives focus on sharing their love of books. More, librarians are people who do their best to help the homeless, the dispossessed, those too often shunned by society.

For four years, Orlean lived in “the enigma of Harry Peak” and in the magic of libraries. She investigated their history and their practices, local and global (in Kenya, library books are delivered to nomadic tribes by camel) and she thought about their future. Libraries are often considered redundant in a digital world. But figures show them to be very popular today with 30-year-olds. In the United States, public libraries even outnumber McDonald’s.

Right now, in Wellington, Waikanae and elsewhere, those engaged on the rebuilding and restoring of libraries should consult their librarians. And without a doubt they should also read Orlean’s hymn to the public library. Give copies to friends, and get one to your mayor and all your local body representatives – not to hector but to amaze and inspire.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean (Allen & Unwin, $32.99) is available at Unity Books.

Susan Orlean appears at the Auckland Writers Festival on May 19, in conversation with Simon Wilson. 

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