Su­san Or­lean

The Week (US) - - 22 Arts - Amy Carl­ton Alice Cary

Su­san Or­lean has found a per­fect shel­ter from our stormy times, said in BookPage. For her lat­est book, the best-sell­ing au­thor of The Orchid Thief wanted to spend a year in­side a li­brary, but she knew a quiet in­sider’s tour wasn’t much of a con­cept. “It had a lit­tle bit of a sag­gy­baggy feel,” she says. For­tu­nately, Los An­ge­les’ cen­tral pub­lic li­brary turned out to be a more qui­etly thrilling place than she’d ex­pected. On an in­tro­duc­tory walk-around, she was sur­prised when her guide stopped to open a book, in­haled deeply, and de­clared he could still smell smoke. The li­brary, Or­lean soon learned, had in 1986 been en­gulfed by a fire of mys­te­ri­ous ori­gin that de­stroyed or dam­aged a mil­lion-plus books. “I just about fell off my chair,” she says.

In The Li­brary Book, Or­lean uses the sus­pected ar­son to awaken read­ers to how im­por­tant li­braries are, said

in Amer­i­can Li­braries. “I’d like to re­mind peo­ple of how glo­ri­ous it is to say we are de­vot­ing our­selves to make these spa­ces that are purely com­mit­ted to sav­ing and cir­cu­lat­ing sto­ries,” Or­lean says. “In many ways, it’s the high­est ex­pres­sion of what so­ci­ety is.” Her method in­volves weav­ing sur­pris­ing de­tails about li­brary op­er­a­tions with a sus­pense­ful who­dunit that cul­mi­nates in a 2,000-de­gree fire. And the writ­ing got her think­ing about book burn­ing and how it ac­tu­ally works. To find out, one day she grabbed a pa­per­back copy of Ray Brad­bury’s Fahren­heit 451 and touched a flame to it out in her yard. Books, she re­ports, catch fire “like lit­tle bombs.” She was stunned: “It just seemed like it grabbed the flames and went boom.”

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