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Why a library fire feels like an ‘attack on humanity’

In April 1986, fire raged through the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles, damaging or destroying more than a million books. Journalist and author Susan Orlean resurrects this nearly forgotten story in “The Library Book,” which also explores the emotional attachment so many of us feel to books and libraries. Jeffrey Brown shares this true-life tale of loss and revitalization.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Before we go tonight, we want to return to California, but look back to an earlier fire in Los Angeles.

    Jeffrey Brown explores a true life story of books, libraries, destruction, and revitalization.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    April 29, 1986, fire raged through the Los Angeles Central Library, destroying or damaging more than a million books.

  • Susan Orlean:

    It was such a huge event, such a singular event, being the largest library fire in the history of the U.S., I was shocked that I had never heard about it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You didn't know about it?

  • Susan Orlean:

    I had no clue.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's a true story. And now, in "The Library Book," author Susan Orlean resurrects the almost forgotten history of the Los Angeles fire, and explores the emotional attachment so many of us have to books and libraries.

  • Susan Orlean:

    There's something about the burning of a library, partly because of our associations in history with what it means to burn a library, partly because we relate to books as something that's so near to us.

    It's essentially us taking what's in our mind and our soul and preserving it in some fashion. And to destroy that feels almost like an attack on humanity.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Orlean's book is part history, of a beautiful building in downtown L.A. filled with architectural and artistic detail that first opened in 1926, and the colorful characters who were key to its development.

    And it's part whodunit, focused on a would-be actor named Harry Peak with a penchant for lying. The 1986 fire, Orlean tells us, started in the fiction area, and spread through the building, burning for seven hours, reaching temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees, before firefighters could put it out.

    The rare books room where Orlean and I met looked like this; 32 years later, some of the books back on the shelves are still scarred.

    So, you can see the soot.

  • Susan Orlean:

    The soot, and they smell. But a lot of the books were as badly damaged by the water being used to put out the fire as they were by the fire itself.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For Orlean, a longtime staff writer for "The New Yorker" and acclaimed author of eight books, including "The Orchid Thief" and "Rin Tin Tin," this was also a personal story, of childhood visits with her mother to her local library in the Cleveland suburbs, and of her mother's growing dementia and then death as Orlean was writing this book.

  • Susan Orlean:

    This was an irony that, of course, I couldn't have anticipated and certainly was a painful irony.

    Just as I began thinking about those trips that we'd spent together and remembering how precious they were, how much they marked my childhood, my mother was diagnosed with dementia, to a point where she actually stopped recognizing me. And she passed away before I finished the book.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Orlean embedded herself on and off for more than two years to study the inner workings of the library and bring a day-in-life feel.

    This is the library as you have never seen it, as here in the shipping department, what she calls the bloodstream that passes books throughout library branches.

  • Susan Orlean:

    It's a little like prying the back off of a clock, and seeing the mechanism, you know? It's amazing. To make a library work requires a lot of different pieces.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Orlean is a writer known for putting herself in the story, showing us her own sense of discovery and puzzlement, her endless curiosity.

  • Susan Orlean:

    The reason I'm a writer is to satisfy that endless amount of curiosity.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's interesting to watch when and where you bring yourself in. Are you comfortable doing that? Do you — does it just come naturally?

  • Susan Orlean:

    It occurred to me that the simplest way to do that would be to write in first person, and basically explain to the reader why we were moving from one part of the story to another. And it was absolutely liberating.

    It wasn't…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You mean to break that down and just to say, I am here?

  • Susan Orlean:

    Yes, exactly, and to acknowledge that I was the storyteller, and I was now going to take them to another part of the story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Inevitably, there is this part of the story, the library today, part learning and community center, part shelter for the homeless, the stacks and circulation desk, even as the library evolves in the digital age.

    Orlean came to see a new importance for libraries in our culture today. You say: "The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity."

  • Susan Orlean:

    And that is something precious, to have a space that is shared openly by everyone.

    As we have become individuated and moved away from these communal experiences, the places that offer us a chance to be in an open space with other members of the community…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    People we wouldn't often mix with.

  • Susan Orlean:

    Exactly. I think that that is really valuable.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The fire here closed the library for seven years. But the larger community rallied around it, raised money for Reconstruction, and even helped restock the shelves.

    The history of libraries, Orlean reminds us, is a history of destruction, but also a rebirth of knowledge. And she found a personal reawakening as a writer.

  • Susan Orlean:

    To write a book about books and about the agony of hearing about books being destroyed, and being a writer, made me think, so what is the value? What is it that I'm doing? And what is the enduring value of writing a book? Why is it so compelling?

    Appreciating the kind of hopefulness that writing a book entails or telling a story. It's this statement to the world that your memories and perspective and impressions have a value that can be taken from your internal memories and shared with the world. And that to me seems very optimistic.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So important as we're watching these terrible fires right now in California.

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