At some point in our lives, we will allow ourselves to be consumed by something, kindled by the flames of art, sex, passion or whatever else transcends you beyond the mortal realm of existence. If we weren’t curious about something or hungry for knowledge, we would be left on empty, our own flames extinguished.
Susan Orlean, a journalist for The New Yorker and acclaimed author of “The Orchid Thief” (the basis for Oscar-winning, Meryl Streep-starring 2002 film “Adaptation”), had her own fascination sparked by the Los Angeles library fire of 1986. The flames that devoured over 400,000 library books was a travesty to page after page of history, memories and untainted knowledge. Beyond the content inside, the library building itself was a mecca for connection among people and words that left patrons with a reviving sense of community and ineffable nostalgia.
Last Thursday night in the Ann Arbor District Library, aisles were filled with admirers of Orlean’s endearment towards library books and the worlds they hold inside. Orlean’s curiosity surrounding this tragic event prompted her latest release, “The Library Book,” a biography that peers into why libraries and library books are cherished as sacred spaces across the globe.
Orlean’s work consisted of investigating the arrest of the young man possessed by his dream of stardom and the subsequent legal case surrounding his arson. The results were in: 45,000 works of literature, 9,000 business books, 6,000 magazines, 18,000 social science books, 12,000 cookbooks (including six books of popcorn recipes) and numerous other devastated book categories making the recovery attempt the largest on record. All of the books were wet from the firefighters’s attempt to put out the flames. The only way to salvage some more time for the books to have a chance at restoration was for them to be frozen. The library reached out to various food companies in L.A. that had freezers large enough to store hundreds of thousands of damaged library books. “They shoved aside the broccoli and the shrimp. And the books were frozen for 6 years,” Orlean said.
While writing “The Library Book,” Orlean’s mother was diagnosed with dementia.
“I came across an expression that is used in Senegal when someone dies, and rather than saying that he or she died, you say his or her library has burned,” Orlean said. As Orlean watched her own mother’s library burn down, she finally recognized the power libraries have to retain things eternally while humans fade closer to oblivion with each passing inhale and exhale.
“Each of us in a sense as our own private library, our own set of volumes of stories and vignettes. Libraries in a way replicate what we have inside ourselves, a collection of information that defines who we are, who we’ve been and who we dream of being,” Orlean said.
There’s a reason that burning books seems like a heinous crime against humanity, and to Orlean, it is because books preserve who we are. For this same reason, oppressive regimes burn books as a method of terror against other nations, sending the message that “you don’t exist.” “The number of books burned in World War II and libraries burned is the single greatest loss of books in the history of civilization,” Orlean stated. Books become extensions of ourselves that preserve culture, history, science and all other bits and pieces of human thought rendered into ink-inscribed words on paper.
Orlean concluded the event with a reading from the end of “The Library Book” that best captures the sentimentality of libraries: “The library is so big that I can feel private. Almost like a secret place,” she said. The idea, it seemed, was that libraries connect people with ideas, cultivating spaces for the embers of passion and inspiration to be set ablaze.
“The silence was more soothing than solemn. The library is a good place to sulk in solitude. A place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone… You don’t need to take a book off of a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you.”