I love libraries more than most things on this planet. Their endless supply of material to stuff into the cracks of my curiosity; the conveyor belt of poetry, fiction, art books, history, biography, essays straight into my hungry belly; the ability to get my hands on almost any book I’ve ever asked for, free of charge, within a week. Stunning. As a library nerd I was definitely interested in reading Susan Orlean’s book about the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles main library which damaged 700k books and destroyed 400k. The fire’s start remains unsolved, although they did arrest Harry Peak, a habitual liar and actor whose varying accounts of his involvement with the fire ranged from innocence to bragging that he did it, only to have him released without sufficient evidence for a criminal trial.
Orlean’s book uses the current fashion of shoving a new focus into each chapter before careening back to the main topic (the fire); I wonder if we attention deficient moderns are even able to read in any other manner. Despite whiplash from jerking to and fro between her love of libraries (agree!) to Harry’s biography to the origin story of the LA library to the parade of library directors, it’s a good story. I love the use of random (yet pertinent) card catalog entries at the beginning of each chapter.
Fun facts learned along the way:
California had a slave law passed in 1850 that wasn’t entirely repealed until 1937 that allowed “white people to buy Native American children as ‘apprentices’ and to ‘bid’ on Native Americans who were declared ‘vagrant’ and oblige them to work off the cost of the bid.” Yikes.
Althea Warren became city librarian in 1933 and I would love to read an entire biography about her, “probably the most avid reader who ever ran the library.” Her speech to a 1935 library association said librarians should “read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training, but because they’d rather do it than anything else in the world.” She encouraged people to find time to read and approved of fibbing if it gave you the time you needed. Her tip sheet, “Althea’s Ways to Achieve Reading,” included this gem: “The night you promised to go to dinner with the best friend of your foster aunt, just telephone that you have such a bad cold you’re afraid she’ll catch it. Stay at home and read instead and gobble Lucy Gayheart in one gulp like a boa constrictor.” (Willa Cather wrote Lucy Gayheart).
LA’s library had a reference phone number to call at night (9pm to 1am) from 1973 to 1976