On April 29, 1986, the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles caught fire and burned. Nobody died, though 50 firefighters were injured and more than a million books were damaged. The fire didn’t attract much attention at the time — maybe in part because that same week a nuclear reactor melted down in Chernobyl and sent the stock market crashing. The New York Times didn’t bother to mention it until the day after it had been extinguished, and only then as an aside, on Page A14. But even after arson was suspected, and a suspect identified, the fire never laid any claim to the public’s imagination. It was just one of the many senseless, regrettable things that happened, was briefly noted and then more or less forgotten. Maybe more to the point, nothing in the subsequent 32 years has occurred to heighten the natural interest of the subject. And yet now Susan Orlean — who, back in 1986, like most of the rest of the world, had failed to notice that there had even been a fire inside the Los Angeles Central Library — has written an entire book about it.
She’s done this sort of thing before — most famously with “The Orchid Thief.” Spike Jonze seized upon that one to make a movie (“Adaptation”), which was primarily a satire aimed at Hollywood but also a decent argument that there was no way to turn a Susan Orlean book into a movie unless you tossed the book out and replaced it with a more conventionally thrilling story. To which I now say: If you think “The Orchid Thief” was challenging to adapt, take a crack at “The Library Book.” The most cinematic thing that’s ever occurred inside the Los Angeles Central Library appears to be this one fire, and even the fire wasn’t all that cinematic, as fires go. Afterward, the most compelling related dramas were the various efforts to dry the books. Really, no one should search this material for a movie. But — and here’s both the mystery and the charm of Susan Orlean — it has made for a lovely book.
Or rather, two books. The first is about the fire itself — which Orlean eventually reveals was likely the result not of arson but of accident. Arsonists, she explains, are at once, oddly, extremely difficult to catch and unusually likely to be wrongly convicted. Roughly one in a hundred cases of actual arson are successfully prosecuted; at the same time, a surprising number of people have been sent to jail for a crime that was never committed. At any rate, the 1986 fire inside the Central Library, and the subsequent, inconclusive investigation of it, turn out to be a MacGuffin, a trick for luring the reader into a subject into which the reader never imagined he’d be lured: the history and present life of the Los Angeles Central Library. Much of the book consists of its author wandering around a library building, watching and listening to the people inside it. “My hero is Albert Schweitzer,” one of the librarians tells her, after she asks him if he likes his job. “He said, ‘All true living is face to face.’ I think about that a lot when I’m here.”
“My friends think because I’m a librarian, I know everything,” another librarian says. “We’ll be watching the Olympics, and suddenly, they’ll say, ‘Tina, how do they score snowboarding at the Olympics?’ Or out of the blue, ‘Tina, how long do parrots live?’”
That’s the first thing that strikes Orlean: how even in the age of the internet, the public library remains the place people come to for answers to their most pressing questions. The search has not been entirely replaced by the search engine. Orlean finds old records, kept by librarians, of the hundreds of questions put to them every day, by people from all over the country:
“Patron call. Wanted to know how to say ‘The necktie is in the bathtub’ in Swedish. He was writing a script.”
“Patron call asking whether it is necessary to rise if national anthem is played on radio or television. Explained that one need only do what is natural and unforced; for instance, one does not rise while bathing, eating or playing cards.”
“Patron inquiring whether Perry Mason’s secretary Della Street is named after a street, and/or whether there is a real street named Della Street.”
“Why would someone call here and ask, ‘Which is more evil, grasshoppers or crickets?’” a librarian asks, as she puts down the phone, in earshot of the author.
“The Library Book” is indeed an entire book about a library. The surprise is that the library, though insistently undramatic, has been, pretty much since its inception, so insistently attractive to interesting characters. Charles Fletcher Lummis is here just a case in point. The Los Angeles Public Library had opened in 1873. Women were forbidden from the main reading room at first but by 1885, when Lummis arrived in Los Angeles from the Midwest, women were running the place. Until then he’d been a newspaper reporter with a talent for attracting attention to himself — he’d walked from Ohio to California in knickers and tomato-red knee socks, and written columns about it along the way. Arriving in Los Angeles, he wrote that it was “a dull little place of some 12,000 persons” and then proceeded to make it a lot less dull. He built a private pleasure palace, employed a family of troubadours, threw the best parties in town and, despite being married, slept with seemingly every woman he met. “Lummis’s life wasn’t on a course that would lead naturally to becoming a librarian,” Orlean writes, and yet a librarian he became. The library’s board of directors, deciding it wanted a man to run the place, fired the competent woman then in charge, and replaced her with Lummis.
Right away Lummis set out to improve the tastes of the citizens of Los Angeles. He paid a blacksmith to create an iron with a skull and crossbones brand, which he stamped into the frontispiece of “pseudoscience” books. He then had the library create warning labels to paste into the books — his original plan was to include text that read: “This book is of the worst class that we can possibly keep in the library. We are sorry that you have not any better sense than to read it.” (He was ultimately persuaded to tone it down.) He promoted the library as he promoted himself and aimed to make it “a workshop for scholars including every painter’s apprentice or working boy or streetcar man who wishes to learn, just as much as it includes the Greek professors or the art dilettante.” He trained his assistants to be “aggressively useful,” and explained to all that “books are the last things that any human being can afford to do without.”
At the same time he was in many ways indefensible, as the face of the public library. He continued to have sex with every woman he met. One of his troubadours murdered one of his housekeepers. Eventually — after having exerted enormous influence on the library — he was fired, whereupon he penned an angry letter to a friend. “You will remember I was not a Sweet Girl Graduate of a Library School,” he wrote. “I was a Scholar and Frontiersman and a Two-fisted He-Person and that I went to the roots of that Sissy Library and made it, within two years, an Institution of Character, a He-Library, of which we were all proud.”
Anyway, you get the idea. 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.