‘Library Book’ author talks about her craft, book burning

Susan Orlean will be at Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs on Tuesday
Susan Orlean and her book "The Library Book."
Susan Orlean and her book "The Library Book."

Book lovers often have a certain reverence and love for libraries. 

Author Susan Orlean counts herself among that group. Known for books like “The Orchid Thief” and “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” Orlean has a knack for creating captivating narratives. 

Her latest, “The Library Book,” delves into the unsolved mystery of the most calamitous library fire in American history. On April 29, 1986, a fire at the Los Angeles Public Library destroyed over 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 others. In the information age, “The Library Book,” seems to have struck a chord with readers and reviewers alike. 

On Tuesday, Dec. 4, Orlean will be heading to Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs to discuss her new book with the head of the Saratoga Springs Public Library director Issac Pulver. 

The Gazette caught up with her to talk about book burning, the communal importance of libraries, and some of the eccentric characters she met while completing her research for “The Library Book.”

Q: How did you get started writing? 
A: I think from the minute I could write, I did write. I felt, even when I was really young, that it was a kind of magical power to be able to write and make sentences and make people imagine something different from what they were looking at. So starting when I was very young, I would write little books for my parents and I always loved writing assignments in school. Then, when I graduated college I had this kind of fantasy of being a writer professionally without any particular knowledge of how you went about doing that. I lucked into a job at a tiny startup magazine and that was that. The minute I was actually able to start writing I never looked back. 

Q: You’ve written tons of articles and several books [since then]. The topics that you write about are sometimes quirky and [sometimes] very serious. How did you get the idea for “The Library Book”?
A: I was in the library one day and just began thinking about how interesting libraries are [and] that I didn’t really know what went on in the day to day life of a library. So it was kinda banging around in my head for a while and then when I heard about the fire I thought it was such a remarkable story and so fascinating. It gave me a portal to write this bigger story about libraries in general. 

Q: How did you begin your research for this?
A: Well, I had to learn everything. I was new to L.A. so I needed to learn a lot about the city and about the city’s history. I really began in multiple directions, just trying to read as much as I could about the fire itself but at the same time began learning about the history of the library and in addition the history of the growth of the city because they were so intertwined. But I was starting from zero and all of my research began with me acknowledging how little I knew about the subject and that I was really starting from the ground up. 

Q: In the process of your research, you met a lot of interesting characters. Can you tell me about a few?
A: Some of the people that I enjoyed meeting the most were not alive if that counts. There were so many figures in the library’s history that I kinda fell in love with, including several of the former head librarians, particularly around the turn of the century. There was a truly eccentric, brilliant man named Charles Lummis who was one of the most extraordinary figures I’ve ever written about. [He] was passionate about books, a bit of an egomaniac and a narcissist and a showman but also a real genius. He ran the library for five years and really put his stamp on it in more ways than one. He made a branding iron, like the kind of iron you’d use to brand cattle and he branded books that he didn’t think were worth people’s time to read as a way of saying ‘We’ll keep this in the library because we own it and it’s part of our collection, but this is not a book that I recommend you read.’ That was pretty funny. 

Q: So he was part curator in a way, telling people ‘You can ignore this one.’
A: Yeah, absolutely. He had very strong feelings about what your experience in a library should be like and it included pointing you toward the books that he thought were worthwhile and pointing you away from ones he didn’t approve of. He was just a very extraordinary figure and, similarly, I really adore the current head of the library, who is a very humane, empathetic, inspirational guy. [He] sort of embodies what I think of as what libraries do best, which is [provide] a sense of community and knowledge and sharing that everybody can participate in. 

Q: Another aspect of your research was about book burning. What were some of the things you learned through that part of the research? Was that part disturbing?  
A: It was very disturbing. I became fluent in the long, unfortunate history of book and library burning which dates back to the beginning of time pretty much. The number of books over the course of history that have been burned for political reasons is really astonishing. World War II, in particular, was quite devastating to the libraries of the world. Some of those libraries were burned because they were in cities that were being bombed but many of them were singled out and burned particularly by the German army that sought to erase whole cultures from the world’s consciousness and that meant not only killing the people but destroying the people but destroying the books that represented the culture.

Q: You mentioned, that you also did your own book burning. 
A: I decided to burn a book myself partly to explore why it feels so repugnant to us. It was something that I found quite awful to do even though I knew that I could replace a book quite easily. I also did it because I was going to be describing the destruction of this library and I realized that I’d never seen a book burn. If I was to write this vivid description it would be useful to be able to know what that looked like. But it was very difficult to bring myself to do it. It really was something that I felt uncomfortable about and I thought that was really interesting that the taboo is very real. 

Q: Which book did you burn?
A: I burned a copy of “Fahrenheit 451.”
Q: Do you think that a lot of people in the United States realize just how much libraries mean and that Google really can’t replace places like these, especially because they’re physical institutions?
A: I think that you put it perfectly. Libraries aren’t merely a stash of books, they have all sorts of resources and they’re a physical place and that’s an irreplaceable part of what they offer, which is this public place where information is shared and celebrated and disseminated. In addition, not everything is online. While it certainly is true that lots and lots of stuff is, it’s also very true that there’s a lot that’s not online and that there is a value in encountering material in the flesh that libraries make possible. 

Q: Do you think that people, especially in the younger generations, realize that?
A: Well, visits to libraries, in general, are up and surveys show that people under the age of 30 support the statement that there’s a lot in the library that doesn’t exist on the internet. So in a way, it’s the opposite of what you’d expect. Younger people seem to quite aware that there’s a lot that’s not online.  

Q: When you were a kid, what was your favorite library and what [are] some of your best memories from there?
A: My favorite library was my branch library near my house when I was growing up. It’s the one I have the most sentimental attachment to. I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland and it was a branch library near my house. I just have countless memories, I wouldn’t even be able to choose my favorite because I went so often. It was just very much a part of my life . . . each visit felt like the best visit. 

Q: With “The Orchid Thief,” there was a film adaptation. Any interest in [adapting] this one?
A: Yeah, it’s going to be adapted for television. 

Q: What book are you currently reading?
A: I’m just finishing “The Witch Elm” by Tana French and I’m just finishing “Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan. 

Susan Orlean will be at Northshire Bookstore (424 Broadway, Saratoga Springs) on Tuesday. Starting at 6 p.m. she’ll be discussing “The Library Book” with Issac Pulver, the director of the Saratoga Springs public library. Tickets are $5. For more information visit northshire.com

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