One of the most important legacies my siblings and I received from our mom was the reading and library “habit.” We saw our mother reading constantly — as a returning adult student and as a lover of the printed word for entertainment and escape. Yes, having four teenagers in the house at one time might mean one needs to leave the real world for imaginary ones with always happy endings.
Our apartment in Richmond sat 16 blocks from the city library, and Mother encouraged us to walk for the exercise. This distance did mean a limit to the number of books we could check out at one time though we returned home with plenty of books, nonetheless.
Every place Dave and I moved, one of the first sites to check out was the local library, and the Gertrude Weil House in Goldsboro offered the same treasure house of reading material all libraries contain. I can still hear our daughter’s stroller wheels clanking softly on the wooden floors of that library in 1972 when we made our weekly visit and met other moms there, forming lifelong friendships grown out of a love for books and reading.
Then Wayne County acquired a new public library building and branches, farsighted head librarians and their staffs, and collections that have kept current with technology and people’s needs. Just read the library’s activities published in this newspaper to gain an idea of the role the library plays in the community and in our lives. This theme resonates in a 2018 book by Susan Orlean titled “The Library Book.” The design of the book first captures our attention with its hardback red cover and inside front papers that summarize the content. The back cover has a photocopied library book pocket and a card that shows four names of people who have checked out the book: Ray Bradbury, Edith Gross, Susan Orlean, and Austin Gillespie.
These names link the book’s epigraphs and dedications because they include Ray Bradbury, who wrote “Fahrenheit 451,” a book about book burnings, among other themes; the author’s mother, Edith Gross Orlean, “my past” in the dedication; and Austin Gillespie, the author’s son, who is also a dedicatee Orlean calls “my future.” Orlean’s humor in including her own name pervades in the book, which focuses mostly on a serious accounting of the fire that destroyed the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986.
Orlean is puzzled about how she missed the news item about this tremendous fire that burned for seven hours, attained a temperature of 2,000 degrees, and destroyed or damaged 1 million books. When she researched the date, April 29, 1986, she realized that other news stories took top billing — the trial of mobster John Gotti, President Reagan and his wife Nancy in Indonesia, and the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union. The New York Times finally carried the fire story on April 30: “The books burned while most of us were waiting to see if we were about to witness the end of the world.” The fire closed the library for seven years, costing the city $625,000 for sawdust and salvage sheets to suppress the fire, 3 million gallons of water, medical expenses for injured firefighters, repair costs for damage to the building, and the cost of replacing or repairing more than a million books.
Chapter headings are numbered but not titled; instead, Orlean uses book titles as if they were a card catalog entry, revealing the Dewey Decimal Classification System. Orlean devotes Chapter 4 to a sociological study of the presumed arsonist Harry Peak, a would-be actor. While Peak was arrested, he was never indicted, as recounted in Chapter 29, so the cause of the fire remains a mystery to this day.
In a short Chapter 5, Orlean decides to burn a book, one of the hardest things she has ever done as she too was given the “library habit” as a young child. She writes, “Our visits to the library were never long enough for me. The place was so bountiful. I loved wandering around the bookshelves, scanning the spines until something happened to catch my eye. Those visits were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived. ... On the ride home my mom and I talked about the order in which we were going to read our books, a solemn conversation in which we decided how to pace ourselves through this charmed, evanescent period of grace until the books were due.”
One of the three epigraphs comes from Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” a Wayne County Reads selection in 2010. You recall that the government has burned all the books, but people have memorized whole books and have escaped to fringe communities where they pass on the books from memory to future generations. The epigraph reads, “And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering.” Orlean realizes that she cannot harm a book, no matter how torn and tattered. She compares the feeling to throwing away a plant, another discard she cannot bring herself to do: “To have that same feeling about a book might seem strange, but I believe that books have souls. ... A book feels like a thing alive in this moment, and also alive on a continuum, from the moment the thoughts about it percolated in the writer’s mind to the moment it sprang off the printing press — a lifeline that continues on as someone sits with it and marvels over it. ...”
The book continues with stories of library directorships at the Los Angeles and other public libraries; the discrimination against women as head librarians; the generosity of Andrew Carnegie, who built nearly 1,700 libraries in 1,400 communities; literacy movements that began in libraries; the library as a place of solace during the Depression; the economic upheavals that affected library budgets; the role of libraries during world wars to offer first aid classes and sell war bonds; and other fascinating accounts. Add it to your summer reading list!