35. Dewey, decimated
November 29th, 2020

Susan Orlean - The Library Book
(File under: books, libraries, lists, rubber)

Read: susanorlean.com/author/books/the-library-book

On April 29th 1986 the largest library fire in American history broke out at the Los Angeles Central Library, destroying over 400,000 books and damaging more than 700,000. Susan Orlean’s The Library Book is ostensibly a book about the fire, but feels more like a tender cross-section cut through the building to reveal the people and processes that power it, and the history that built it. I’m barely halfway through the thing and I’m already in love.

If you’re a person who loves books and libraries, it’s a poignant reading experience, particularly during COVID. There’s a vicarious pleasure in Orlean’s descriptions of idly wandering the stacks and her ASMR-like painting of the sonic landscape of the library. But her procedural breakdown of how the fire started, spread, and remained blazing for seven hours is unexpectedly moving, particularly in light of passages like these that underline the wealth of what was lost:

Things are always coming in and going out of a library, so it’s impossible to know what it contains on any given day. By 1986, Central Library’s contents were valued, for insurance purposes, at roughly $69 million. They included at least two million books, manuscripts, maps, magazines, newspapers, atlases, and musical scores; four thousand documentary films; census records dating back to 1790; theater programs of every play produced in Los Angeles since 1880; and telephone directories for every single American city with a population over ten thousand. It had America’s finest assemblage of books on the subject of rubber, donated in 1935 by Mr. Harry Pearson, a noted rubber authority. It had a Shakespeare folio; a quarter million photographs of Los Angeles dating back to 1850; car repair manuals for every single make and model of automobile staring with the Model T; five hundred folk dolls from around the world; the only comprehensive patent collection in the western United States; and twenty-one thousand books about sports. It housed the largest collection of books on food and cooking in the country—twelve thousand volumes, which included three hundred on French cuisine, thirty on cooking with oranges and lemons, and six guides to cooking with insects, including in the classic Butterflies in My Stomach.

Lists like these are peppered throughout the book. One paragraph casually begins “Olivia Primanis, a book conservator with an expertise in mold and mildew…”. Entire stories are teased with lines like “The day Elvis Presley died, somebody checked out all of the library’s Elvis records, and never returned them,” and then left in the dust as Orlean’s research gallops onwards. Then there are paragraphs like these, which remind me just why the library is at the top of my list of places to visit when the world opens up again.

It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries—and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up—not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.

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