Phoenix in Los Angeles
it happened immediately after a major fire and explosion at a nuclear power plant near Chernobyl in the Ukraine which had released a large amount of radiation. News about a library fire in LA got shifted to the back pages.
Orlean weaves three major threads together: the story of the fire itself, the efforts to salvage the collection and the struggle to find a new home for what remained of the collection; the history of the library, mostly as told through the stories of the different directors of the library; and the investigation into the cause of the fire and the attempts to have someone charged with arson.
Orlean’s description of the fire is so vivid, that I felt on the verge of sweating and gasping for breath as the heat intensified and the flames sucked the oxygen out of the room. (I would advise against reading this passage in a cramped space!) This chapter is all the more remarkable since Olean was thousands of kilometres away from the event she is describing.
After seven hours and thirty-eight minutes, the fire was fully extinguished. 300,000 books had been destroyed and another 700,000 had been soaked in the firemen’s efforts to douse the flames. Mold spores begin to bloom within 48 hours of being activated by water. The only way to get books off the shelves, especially when they are soaking wet, is to remove them by hand. The call for volunteers went out. Next day two thousand people showed up to take the books off the shelves and pack them in shipping cases. There was no chance of drying that many books in only two days. Fortunately, Los Angeles has a large fruit and vegetable packing industry and a large seafood packing industry, both of which feature huge freezers. That is where the wet books were stored for the next two years.
When it came time to thaw the books, it wasn’t any use just to warm them up. That would have produced a mountain of cold, soggy books. This was the turn of the aerospace industry to come to the rescue. These companies have vacuum facilities that are used to test satellites in outer space conditions. The vacuums could suck the water out of the pages of the books. This process took three years to complete.
Orlean includes a chilling discussion of the significance of burning books. It is one thing to burn them by accident, or at random. But when the burning is targeted at a certain group, it becomes an instrument of cultural genocide – an effort to destroy the history and heritage of the targeted group. This is the final stage before actually burning the writers and readers of these books.
The investigation into the source of the fire revolved around one man: Harry Peak. Harry, like many young people in LA, was an aspiring film star. He was from Santa Fe Springs, a small town about 65 kilometres east of the city. He was frequently able to make the short journey home to see his high school chums. On the day of the fire, he bragged to some of them that he had not only been at the library that morning, but that he was the one who set it ablaze. Given Harry’s well-earned reputation as a BS artist, no one took him seriously. The police eventually caught up with him. But they could never get him to maintain a consistent story about his actions that day. Eventually, criminal charges were dropped. Harry sued the city for harassment and abuse. The city countersued for damages and the cost of the fire department expenses that day. In the end, the suits were settled out of court when it became obvious that Harry was dying of AIDS.
The Library Book is available at the Lennoxville Library. The last of our used book sales will be held tomorrow at Square Queen next to the farmer’s market between 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.