REVIEW | Susan Orlean examines the significance of libraries in her new novel

Orlean's ability to shift perceptions is what makes her work so powerful, writes Bron Sibree

24 February 2019 - 00:00 By Bron Sibree

The Library Book *****
Susan Orlean, Atlantic Books, R400

If anyone was going to turn a book about libraries into one of the most riveting reads of the moment, it was going to be Susan Orlean. Shifting preconceptions is, after all, what the New Yorker writer and author of such bestselling books as Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief - which inspired the 2002 movie Adaptation - is renowned for.

But with The Library Book, her eighth title, Orlean has fashioned a narrative so timely, so essential, that it has surprised even herself. "It became a very political book in a way that I had never anticipated."

Six years in the writing, The Library Book revolves around Orlean's quest to solve a 30-year-old mystery: who caused the 1986 fire that ravaged the Los Angeles Central Library, destroying 400,000 books and damaging another 700,000? But as is her trademark, it is a glorious hybrid of a book. Part biography of the library, part history of Los Angeles, part study of fire and arson, populated with an array of eccentric characters including the wannabe actor who was accused of setting the library on fire, it upends familiar perceptions of all libraries and librarians.

Indeed, the sheer dynamism of libraries, their ever-evolving engagement with their communities - be it the Central Library of Los Angeles or the unique mobile libraries of Africa - astonished Orlean.

"I began with the typical preconceptions but was set straight through the course of my reporting. We think of libraries as passive places, almost like a big lock-box of material. But, in fact, their engagement with society, with the culture, is notable and hardy. These are not passive places. If you say 'librarian' everybody instantly thinks of somebody with their hands neatly folded. Instead, I had the sense of people who were on the cutting edge of society in a way that I hadn't appreciated before," she says.

Orlean hadn't known of the fire until she heard about it during a tour of the library soon after she'd moved to Los Angeles in 2011.

I didn't feel that I could tell the story of one library burning without learning about the burning of many libraries.

"I felt immediately that I wanted to write about it. But I didn't feel that I could tell the story of one library burning without learning about the burning of many libraries, and it was a melancholy task.

"The fact that there are regimes that have made it a priority to destroy books was very disturbing. It doesn't equate to destroying human lives, but as far as it being evidence of a human impulse to destroy narrative as a way of suppressing a culture it's sobering.

"But the fact that books are targeted tells you how powerful they are, and how meaningful they are, and that they exist in a special space in terms of their impact and importance to humanity."

Similarly, she didn't want to tell the story of the Central Library without looking at its past, "so each story led to another story in ways I hadn't anticipated. I began the book in the Obama era, and it felt like an interesting story but one that didn't have the kind of urgency that it took on as a statement about the value of all human voices; the value of the breadth of knowledge that we have available; the mission that places like libraries have to be inclusive and embracing of newcomers. But it became urgent in a way I had never expected with the election of Trump. To me, that rewrote the meaning of the book in a way that was really profound."

Of profound importance to Orlean, too, is her belief that a writer's mission is "to bring people to care about parts of life they didn't imagine having any concern about. That has remained a constant for me," she says.

"The feeling that if you're given the opportunity to shine a light on different parts of society, choosing to shine it in places that don't get shined upon often is an important mission. I feel very lucky," she adds. "I feel like I've been given a platform and I want to use it as best I can." @BronSibree

  • Published in the Sunday Times: February 24, 2019
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