For those of us who can’t afford all the books we read, the library is as essential as a grocery store. We need books to remind us how deeply connected we are. We need books because we know we’re going to die. Puzzled, alone or desperate, we still have Anne Frank, Ivan Ilitch, Gregor Samsa.
Susan Orlean, a New York writer and author of the bestselling book “The Orchid Thief,” had frequented her local library as a child. As an adult, living in New York City, she made a habit of buying her own books.
In 2011, however, her husband accepted a job in Los Angeles. They moved to the valley and one of the first assignments of her 6 year old son was to interview someone who worked for the city. Orleans suggested a public library, so the two went to the Bertram Woods branch.
Walking into a library again after all these years inundated Orléans with sensory memories. Everything was the same, she realized: the “crackle and whine of book carts”, the soft sound of pencils on paper, the “muffled whisper” of customers, the tattered community bulletin board.
“It wasn’t that time that stood still in the library. It was as if it was captured here, collected here and in every library – and not just my time, my life, but all human time too. In the library, time is blocked, not only stopped but saved. The library is a breeding ground for stories and people who come to discover them. This is where we can see immortality; in the library we can live forever.
A door opened. “The library book”(Simon & Schuster, $ 13.69) is the result of what happened when Orléans was there.
The book is ostensibly about the fire that ravaged the Central Library on April 29, 1986. One million books were damaged or destroyed. Irreplaceable artifacts have been reduced to ashes. The arsonist – if there was an arsonist – has never been found, although for years a potential actor and fabulist, Harry Peak, has been the suspect.
But the triumph of Orleans is really to defend the institution of the library in general, and in particular, our own public library in Los Angeles.
Her book is meticulously researched, amplified by countless interviews, and humanized by the countless visits she has made to the library itself.
We learn from our city librarians, from John Littlefield in 1873, to Mary Foy in 1880, to the tumultuous reign of Charles Lummis from 1905 to 1910, to John F. Szabo of today.
Each page is filled with fascinating stories and facts. Notes left in returned books, like messages in a bottle. One, from 1914, says, “I researched three cities for you and advertised to no avail. Knowing that you love books, I write this call in every library book I can get hold of in the hope that it comes to you. Write to me at the old address, please.
A very popular telephone reference service was instituted in the 1930s, to which library patrons made calls ranging from “What Was Romeo Like” to “Number of Jewish Families in Glendale” to “If Immortality Can Be.” seen in the iris of the eye. “
Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) spent almost every day for 13 years at the Central Library, reading batteries and learning as an alternative to college. “The library was my nesting place, my birthplace; it was my place of growth.
Bertram Goodhue’s Modernist-Art Deco Temple, the Central Library at 630 W. 5th Street in downtown LA, opened in 1926.
Critic Merrill Gage wrote in Artland News: “Like all creative art, it is disturbing: it leaves an impression that is both satisfying and confusing. It does not follow any accepted architectural method, but through it accents of Spain, the East, and modern Europe come and go like folk songs in a great symphony rising to new and unsuspected heights. in a truly American order in spirit. “
Almost 100 years later, it’s some sort of description of the city itself that still stands.
In fact, some of the most poignant passages are those which describe the emotional devastation suffered by the library staff after the 1986 fire. People could not sleep, eat. They were concerned that customers would feel abandoned. One woman wore white for several months, “hoping it would help her feel pure again.”
Volunteers came out of the woods; donations were pouring in. About 700,000 books had been damaged. The restoration of the Central Library collection would prove to be the largest book drying project ever undertaken. What could be recovered has been recovered. The loss was finally accepted.
After seven years, the last four in a cramped location on Spring Street, the Central Library has reopened. Today, it serves over 4 million people, the largest population of any public library in the United States.
“A library is a good place to soften loneliness; “Orléans observes,” a place where you feel part of a conversation that has lasted for hundreds and hundreds of years, even when you are alone.
Librarian Russell Garrigan had worked for the Teen’Scape library department for 17 years when Orléans asked him if he liked his job.
Garrigan replied, “Well my hero is Albert Scwheitzer. He said, ‘All real life is face to face.’