The patience for borrowing
Susan Orlean on why libraries matter
As a staff writer for The New Yorker, Susan Orlean has explored a plethora of topics related to arts, news, and culture—Justin Bieber, “mom jeans,” and medical marijuana among them—for more than 25 years. She’s also the author of several books of nonfiction, including “The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession” (1998), which was the inspiration for 2002’s Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman film “Adaptation.” Susan spoke with me on the phone about her newest book, “The Library Book,” in which she reverently considers the importance of libraries in both her own life and for our culture as a whole. Booksmart Tulsa will bring her in to visit Tulsa’s Central Library on Nov. 17 to talk more about why libraries matter.
Cassidy McCants: Hey, Susan. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. We’re looking forward to having you in Tulsa.
Susan Orlean: Ah, thanks. You too.
McCants: Have you been to Tulsa before?
Orlean: Never. Oklahoma is the only state I’ve never been to, so this is going to be a watershed moment for me.
McCants: I suppose you’ll be talking about why libraries matter, referring to your most recent book, “The Library Book.” I’m curious about how writing this one might have been different from your past projects. Could you talk a little about what exactly brought you to writing “The Library Book” and how it might have been different from or similar to your other journalistic work?
Orlean: That’s a good question, and I’ve been thinking lately about how it’s different from my other books. One thing it has in common: I’m very interested in things I think I know everything about—I know how it works, I know everything about it—and discovering that I actually know nothing about them. That’s been true of every one of my books. There’s the sense that something that seemed familiar is actually full of mystery and much more complex than I expected. … Libraries were so familiar to me, and yet I never really thought about them, never thought of how they worked, never thought of their history, never thought about why they were particularly meaningful to me or to anybody. And doing the book was an examination of this thing that seemed so familiar that actually proved to be much more complex and interesting and complicated than I had realized.
I guess what was different was this felt very personal, more than any other book I’ve written. … I was thinking about going to the library with my mom as a kid and taking my son when he was old enough to go—and, additionally, being new to L.A. and stumbling into the library and into the story of the fire—it was a much more personal book, even though the subject seemed like it wouldn’t lend itself to being personal. … I became very curious about how libraries have so much meaning for us, how much they have for me, and trying to figure out why a place filled with books feels so meaningful.
McCants: You write about how the library is an easy place to be when you have nowhere else to go. I think that’s a beautiful thing about a library, but if this is true, why are so many of us afraid that libraries are in danger?
Orlean: Well, I think we have reason to worry about libraries. First of all, the development of the internet began making people wonder if we needed libraries, and the minute you start wondering if you need something, there’s a reason to worry it’s going to begin disappearing very quickly. Libraries are a very easy thing for cities to cut money from, you know; they’re not the fire department, the police department. It feels very easy to say there’s going to be less money in the budget for the library.
And I have this other feeling that I and many people I know, at a certain point, sort of lost the patience for borrowing things and wanted to own anything we’re interested in. I think that made libraries seem sort of slow and old-fashioned and kind of speaking to a different culture. … And I think as a culture we kind of lost an appreciation for not only sharing books but sharing space, that you might go to a library just to hang out and to be in a public space. … So there are a lot of reasons libraries began to feel they weren’t part of the modern world anymore, and now I think we’re beginning to see them kind of roaring back to life. I think people appreciate once again the idea of sharing and public space, and I happen to think libraries are on the brink of being reborn as something really important to communities.
McCants: I know the saving embrace a library can give us seems really important to me right now. What are your thoughts about why, particularly right now, we need that kind of shared space, shared knowledge?
Orlean: We’re living in a moment in time where it feels like we don’t exist as a community. There’s so much divisiveness and polarization. … I think there is something incredibly uplifting about being in public, peacefully, with other people in your community, that everyone craves. I don’t think you would see the explosion of coffee shops if there weren’t that feeling that people just want to be together, to sort of feel that they’re part of a communal experience. You know, you can make coffee at home, you can buy a book at home, but the idea that you share space with other people and get out of your own individual private world feels really good and makes you feel that maybe society will survive after all.
McCants: When you write about the burning of the Los Angeles Central Library you talk about people going in, saving the books, and kind of creating a “living library,” passing along those books to rescue them. It’s a beautiful image—but you also bring up the realization of how quickly these human stories can disappear. All these things have been chronicled, and then these physical copies can just be gone in an instant. Do you think this is what a typical library arsonist is going for—making these stories disappear?
Orlean: You know, I think it really depends. Arson is a very strange crime. There are a lot of people who are pyromaniacs and simply want to set things on fire. I don’t think they care what it is—they’re just setting things on fire. But libraries have been burned throughout history by people who are trying to say the stories are being erased, and that’s very meaningful. It’s a way of trying to erase a human component. It’s not merely a book or paper that’s burning; it’s a way of threatening the very idea that a story can last, that knowledge can last. It’s a symbolic destruction of that.
McCants: You chose to burn a book to see what the Central Library arsonist might have seen. Do you think you’ll ever do this again?
Orlean: Ah! [Laughs.] No, definitely not. Thank you for asking, because I want to make it clear I don’t see it as a new hobby of mine. [Laughs.] It was very hard to do. … I cannot imagine a situation where I would do it again. It was an incredibly uncomfortable feeling. I’m glad I did it—it was really interesting for the sake of the book—but, boy oh boy, it was weird. I don’t think I’ll be doing it again.
McCants: You mention in the book it being a kind of terrorism to set a library on fire, to create violence there, because it’s somewhere that’s assumed to be safe. This is kind of mushy, but I wonder what you think we can do to help keep each other safe. What’s next—what’s most pressing for us in taking care of one another? These terrible things obviously happen—and not infrequently. Do we have any hope against them?
Orlean: I don’t think it’s mushy! Not to put too much weight on the value of a library, but I think a sense of community is something we’ve really lost. The great pursuit of a private house and your own yard and your own car—things that are not communal but individual—that’s very much part of the American character, but community is one we can’t lose. Supporting and making use of these places that bring us together—while it’s not going to cure all the ills of society, I think being reminded that we actually are part of communities that need to exist peacefully together is incredibly important. … There have been a lot of studies of pubs in England, [which are] almost like community centers. Everywhere a pub has closed they found that people feel they don’t know their neighbors anymore. A library can serve that purpose as well. If you know your neighbors, you care about your neighbors. That’s a given.
McCants: Thank you, Susan. It’s been lovely. We’re looking forward to having you here. I hope you enjoy Tulsa.
Orlean: You’re so welcome. I’m excited. I’m really genuinely looking forward to it—I can tick off my 50th state, say, “I’ve done it.”