Book of the Month: The Library Book by Susan Orlean (2018)
“The most cinematic thing that’s ever occurred inside the Los Angeles Central Library appears to be this one fire, and even the fire wasn’t all that cinematic, as fires go. Afterward, the most compelling related dramas were the various efforts to dry the books. Really, no one should search this material for a movie. But — and here’s both the mystery and the charm of Susan Orlean — it has made for a lovely book.
Or rather, two books. The first is about the fire itself — which Orlean eventually reveals was likely the result not of arson but of accident. Arsonists, she explains, are at once, oddly, extremely difficult to catch and unusually likely to be wrongly convicted. Roughly one in a hundred cases of actual arson are successfully prosecuted; at the same time, a surprising number of people have been sent to jail for a crime that was never committed. At any rate, the 1986 fire inside the Central Library, and the subsequent, inconclusive investigation of it, turn out to be a MacGuffin, a trick for luring the reader into a subject into which the reader never imagined he’d be lured: the history and present life of the Los Angeles Central Library. Much of the book consists of its author wandering around a library building, watching and listening to the people inside it. “My hero is Albert Schweitzer,” one of the librarians tells her, after she asks him if he likes his job. “He said, ‘All true living is face to face.’ I think about that a lot when I’m here.”
Lewis, Michael, “The Library Fire That Ignited an Author’s Imagination,” The New York Times, October 15, 2018.
” The Library Book 1. Stories to Begin On (1940) By Bacmeister, Rhoda W. X 808 B127 Begin Now–To Enjoy Tomorrow (1951) By Giles, Ray 362.6 G472 A Good Place to Begin (1987) By Powell, Lawrence Clark 027.47949 P884 To Begin at the Beginning (1994) By Copenhaver, Martin B. 230 C782 Even in Los Angeles, where there is no shortage of remarkable hairdos, Harry Peak attracted attention. “He was very blond. Very, very blond,” his lawyer said to me, and then he fluttered his hand across his forehead, performing a pantomime of Peak’s heavy swoop of bangs. Another lawyer, who questioned Peak in a deposition, remembered his hair very well. “He had a lot of it,” she said. “And he was very definitely blond.” An arson investigator I met described Peak entering a courtroom “with all that hair,” as if his hair existed independently. Having a presence mattered a great deal to Harry Omer Peak. He was born in 1959, and grew up in Santa Fe Springs, a town in the paddle-flat valley less than an hour southeast of Los Angeles, hemmed in by the dun-colored Santa Rosa Hills and a looming sense of monotony. It was a place that offered the soothing uneventfulness of conformity, but Harry longed to stand out. As a kid, he dabbled in the minor delinquencies and pranks that delighted an audience. Girls liked him. He was charming, funny, dimpled, daring. He could talk anyone into anything. He had a gift for drama and invention. He was a storyteller, a yarn-spinner, and an agile liar; he was good at fancying up facts to make his life seem less plain and mingy. According to his sister, he was the biggest bullshitter in the world, so quick to fib and fabricate that even his own family didn’t believe a word he said. The closeness of Hollywood’s constant beckoning, combined with his knack for performance, meant, almost predictably, that Harry Peak decided to become an actor. After he finished high school and served a stint in the army, Harry moved to Los Angeles and started dreaming. He began dropping the phrase “when I’m a movie star” into his conversations. He always said “when” and not “if.” For him, it was a statement of fact rather than speculation. Although they never actually saw him in any television shows or movies, his family was under the impression that during his time in Hollywood, Harry landed some promising parts. His father told me Harry was on a medical show–maybe General Hospital–and that he had roles in several movies, including The Trial of Billy Jack. IMDb–the world’s largest online database for movies and television–lists a Barry Peak, a Parry Peak, a Harry Peacock, a Barry Pearl, and even a Harry Peak of Plymouth, England, but there is nothing at all listed for a Harry Peak of Los Angeles. As far as I can tell, the only time Harry Peak appeared on screen was on the local news in 1987, after he was arrested for setting the Los Angeles Central Library on fire, destroying almost half a million books and damaging seven hundred thousand more. It was one of the biggest fires in the history of Los Angeles, and it was the single biggest library fire in the history of the United States.”
“In Los Angeles, your eye keeps reaching for an endpoint and never finds it, because it doesn’t exist. The wide-openness of Los Angeles is a little intoxicating, but it can be unnerving, too–it’s the kind of place that doesn’t hold you close, a place where you can picture yourself cartwheeling off into emptiness, a pocket of zero gravity. I’d spent the previous five years living in the Hudson Valley of New York, so I was more used to bumping into a hill or a river at every turn and settling my gaze on some foreground feature–a tree, a house, a cow. For twenty years before that, I’d lived in Manhattan, where the awareness of when you are in or out of the city is as clear as day. I expected Central Library to look like the main libraries I knew best. New York Public Library and the Cleveland Public Library are serious buildings, with grand entrances and a stern, almost religious aura. By contrast, the Los Angeles Central Library looks like what a child might assemble out of blocks. The building–buff-colored, with black inset windows and a number of small entrances–is a fantasia of right angles and nooks and plateaus and terraces and balconies that step up to a single central pyramid surfaced with colored tiles and topped with a bronze sculpture of an open flame held in a human hand. It manages to look ancient and modern at the same time. As I approached, the simple blocky form of the building resolved into a throng of bas-relief stone figures on every wall. There were Virgil and Leonardo and Plato; bison herds and cantering horses; sunbursts and nautiluses; archers and shepherds and printers and scholars; scrolls and wreaths and waves. Philosophical declarations in English and Latin were carved across the building’s face like an ancient ticker tape. Compared to the mute towers around it, the library seemed more a proclamation than a building. I circled, reading as I walked. Socrates, cool-eyed and stony-faced, gazed past me. I followed the bustle of visitors to the center of the main floor, and then I continued past the clatter and buzz of the circulation desk and climbed a wide set of stairs that spilled me out into a great rotunda. The rotunda was empty. I stood for a moment, taking it in. The rotunda is one of those rare places that have a kind of sacred atmosphere, full of a quiet so dense and deep that it almost feels underwater. All the rotunda’s features were larger than life, overpowering, jaw-dropping. The walls were covered with huge murals of Native Americans and priests and soldiers and settlers, painted in dusty mauve and blue and gold. The floor was glossy travertine, laid out in a pattern of checkerboard. The ceiling and archways were tiled with squares of red and blue and ocher. In the center of the rotunda hung a massive chandelier–a heavy brass chain dangling a luminous blue glass Earth ringed by the twelve figures of the zodiac. I crossed the rotunda and walked toward a large sculpture known as the Statue of Civilization–a marble woman with fine features and perfect posture and a trident in her left hand. I was so stirred by the library’s beauty that when Brecher arrived to give me my tour, I was chattering like someone on a successful first date.”