Books have never had it easy. Even their sanctuaries are vulnerable. Setting aside natural disasters, libraries—a depressing number of them—have succumbed to all kinds of destruction throughout history: most of it intentional, some of it accidental, and almost always involving fire.
For three years, Susan Orlean has been steeped in this particular bibliophilic tragedy, coming to it by way of her book-in-progress on the 1986 arson of the Los Angeles Public Library, the largest library fire in American history (400,000 items destroyed, including books, historic maps, drawings for patents, fine art, film negatives, and the like).
The story of a big fire was almost too easy to tell; for Orlean, a deeper attraction lay in the biography of the place that survived it. “I’m always drawn to stories that operate partly at the level of being familiar to a fault, something that seems unable to sustain a great deal of examination. That’s what makes it interesting to me. It is awfully challenging to take a subject that people initially might think of as boring and convince them that, actually, it’s really interesting. That seems to be my perverse tendency.”
A library, of course, makes for a stubborn protagonist in a work of narrative journalism. “The reality is, it’s just different writing about something that has all of the complexity of bureaucracy. I don’t do a lot of stories where I have to go through channels to get the material I want, and I’m not somebody who knows how to game a system to get access to stuff.” Doggedness helped, both in chasing leads and, later, arranging them—fittingly, with one of the indispensible tools of the librarian’s trade.
Orlean says that when she sat down to write The Orchid Thief, her book about anthomaniac John Laroche, and was confronted by the volume of her notes, “it was like my head blew up.” But she’d read about John McPhee’s taxonomic method of using index cards, and decided to give it a shot. “This was the answer to many of my woes—the index card. A giant part of the writing process is to figure out how to keep material manageable: How do you find things? Structure is maybe the single most important and challenging part of writing a book. So any mechanical way you can help yourself is really important.”
Where ideas belong; where to find them when you need them. The method here isn’t so far removed from the beneficent principles of the library itself. “In a way,” Orlean adds, “the hero here is this amazing legacy of human civilization choosing to preserve the process of our thoughts. Sure, you could say it’s just a place with a lot of books, but people feel tremendous emotions about libraries, about the goodness of them as institutions. And that’s the heroic part of this—that somehow we have this impulse to keep creating these places that preserve for everyone the stories that we’ve made.”
Susan Orlean’s L.A. Reading List:
Ask the Dust by John Fante
City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis
The White Album by Joan Didion
Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham
The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Monster: Living Off the Big Screen by John Gregory Dunne
L.A. Modern by Tim Street-Porter