Susan Orlean is smitten with libraries. The best-selling author of “The Orchid Thief” appeared at the Malibu Library Speaker Series last Tuesday evening to discuss her latest bestseller, “The Library Book.”

The copper haired journalist/author sporting a bold green streak in her hair began by addressing her love of libraries and their value to our society. 

She recounted her childhood in Ohio and her more than weekly visits to her local library with her mother and their love of books, mentioning how a library is a singular world, yet shared with a community.

As an adult, while in a New York library, Orlean was wondering how libraries functioned. 

“I thought somebody ought to write a book about that. Not me, but someone,” she said. The author put it out of her mind until moving to Los Angeles. After taking her son to the local library, she then paid a visit to the colossal Central Library downtown. Describing it as “whimsical,” she elaborated, “like an architect had fallen asleep with a book about King Tut and a book about art deco under his pillow and woke up and started drawing. I immediately loved it. I was enchanted by this particular library.” Orlean compared it to eastern libraries built as “temples of knowledge.” 

It was Orlean’s quest to solve the notorious cold case of the downtown Los Angeles Central Library fire of 1986. A magnitude of 400,000 books were lost in the mysterious blaze, but many people didn’t really know about the devastating news—even those who lived in Los Angeles. The fire was eclipsed by other news on the same April day, when the world learned about the nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Power Plant in the Soviet Union—even though it was the largest library fire in American history. It burned for seven-and-a-half hours, reaching temperatures of over 2,500 degrees. Not only did scores of books burn, but Orlean said bookshelves actually melted. 

“It was fairly certain at one point that the building couldn’t be saved,” she described. In addition to the lost books, there were 700,000 damaged. Restoring those took a herculean effort. Most were waterlogged and had to be dried out within 48 hours before mold set in. So, those books were frozen in giant food storage warehouses in nearby downtown Los Angeles. The food companies may have originally thought they’d be storing books for just a few days, but they were actually stored for seven years until they were able to be returned. “I tell people, some of the books might smell like smoke and some might smell like shrimp,” Orlean quipped.

Soon after the blaze, the fire department determined its cause was arson. 

“It was set by an open flame in a human hand,” she said. 

“I love that description, in part because it’s interesting that the symbol of the library is a human hand holding the light of learning,” Orlean observed. “If you look at the top of the building, you’ll see the torch up there.” Orlean said she was determined to answer the central question: “Who would burn a library, and why?” Her book investigates the fire’s chief suspect, whom she called “a pathological liar with no moral compass.”

“The Library Book” also delves into past patrons, quirky head librarians and original artwork in the massive structure. 

Orlean addressed her “visceral reaction” to the details of the library fire, calling it a “deep, profound loss, and disturbing.”

“There’s no era in the history of humankind since we began writing where libraries weren’t burned. They burn because they’re flammable, but the real reason so many libraries burn is because they are sought out and burned specifically because it hurts us so much,” the author said. “There’s barely been a repressive regime in the history of humankind that didn’t at some point burn books. The Nazis made book burning one of their diagnostic features. It began before the war with communal book burnings where people gathered with books that were written by Jews or gay people, by any group that was considered non-Aryan. Those books were thrown into large piles and set on fire with a general celebration as they burned.”

Orlean concluded, “There’s an expression from Senegal. Rather than saying someone has died, you say his or her library has burned.” It’s a phrase she says she’s contemplated “to compare a person to a library.”

“The Library Book” is about to be turned into a television show.

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