Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean

Image: Noah Fecks

First, the bad news: The pandemic has caused the Library Foundation for Sarasota County to pivot from its usual fund-raising speaker luncheon to a virtual “Love Our Libraries” celebration this year. Now the good news: that event, at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 9, is free and livestreaming at sarasotalibraryfoundation.org, and it welcomes the perfect guest—journalist and author Susan Orlean. Orlean is famous for her book The Orchid Thief, her articles in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and other publications, and her latest best-seller, the oh-so-fittingly titled The Library Book, which, among other subjects, seeks to solve the mystery of a 1986 arson that destroyed 400,000 books at the Los Angeles Public Library. We caught up with Orlean as she was working in her California garden (“It’s saved my sanity this year,” she says) and asked her about the impetus for that book, her love of libraries, and why they are more important to us than ever today.

How did The Library Book originate and develop?

It came about a bit unexpectedly. I had been thinking about how interesting libraries are and how there had never really been a book exploring the idea of the library. Then I heard about the fire, and I was so flabbergasted, both because it was such a huge event and because I’d never heard about it. Hearing about a library burning was so deeply disturbing, and I thought that it was kind of fascinating that it should affect me that way. It made me want to look at why libraries have the meaning for us they do.

How do you decide when a project is worth the time you have to put into it? In this case, three years of research and two years of writing?

It’s a leap of faith, for sure. On some gut level it feels like something you really want to learn about and you have a broad enough story that it could sustain interest for a while. I knew it wasn’t going to be quick. I didn’t realize it would take quite as long as it did. But it’s an intuitive sense that it’s a story that’s rich and engaging.

I went into it thinking I’d tell the story of the fire and it would be a simple, straightforward crime story. And then I began to realize that without context it didn’t mean as much as I knew it really meant. That led me down many paths, including the history of the library, which became really important to me; the huge history of libraries around the world; fires at libraries. It grew organically. I needed to explain why this was an important story.

I’ve heard there is a screen adaptation happening?

Yes, it’s moving along. Obviously, with Covid things slowed down. We just finished the pilot. I don’t know the airer yet, but it will undoubtedly be a streaming service rather than a network.

When I read the book, it brought back for me lots of childhood memories at my local library. Did that happen for you?

Very much. I think that was a major impetus for doing the book. The richness of those memories and the durability of them kept bringing me back to the same questions: Why is it that libraries mean so much to us? What about them has such a hold on our memory and our imagination?

And what’s the answer?

300 pages, that’s my answer.

You’ve also said that the library is one of the last places where everyone is welcome. Talk about that.

Sure. The idea of a public space that’s truly welcoming to everyone is very important to the sense of what a community is. We don’t have many places that fill that role. Public parks, public streets—but beyond that the library is unique in that it welcomes everybody, and there’s no money involved. Anyone can go and just use the library, do it anonymously; you don’t have to sign in to go in. it’s a very safe sort of environment. In the last few decades, libraries have really emphasized that, and they’ve become community spaces for all sorts of things—literacy, community meetings, ESOL classes. They’ve become the real heart of a community. Unlike a lot of government services, people feel good about libraries. You never go to the library for a bad reason. You never go because you’re paying a parking ticket. It’s by choice. There’s always something positive about it.

We have great participation in our libraries in Sarasota. What does that say about a community?

It’s a great sign. Books are relatively affordable for many people, so it’s not a measure of poverty that a library is well used. What it represents, to me, anyway, is that a community sees itself as a community, that it identifies as a shared environment, and that there’s a great deal of interest in supporting a space that is available to everybody. There’s a way in which American culture has emphasized privatization; people are less inclined to think about sharing. A library really is about sharing not just books but the space and the idea of a shared space.

How do you know that a book has achieved what you want it to?

What I most hope for when I write a book is that people feel they’re seeing the world in a new way—their attention is being drawn to something they had maybe overlooked or underappreciated, or never knew was there. If people have a sense of discovery, I feel really happy. That sense that they are going, “Wow, I never knew” about libraries, or arson…that feeling that they’re astonished, for me that’s where I feel I’ve achieved what I hoped to achieve.

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