The Library Book

“Members of the German Student Union carried out the book burning with enthusiasm. At Opera Square, the students formed a human chain, passed the books from hand to hand, and then cast them into a pile. Estimates of the number of books in the bonfire pile range from twenty-five thousand to ninety thousand. As each book was thrown in, a student announced the reason this particular book was being ‘sentenced to death.’ The reasons were stated like criminal charges. …The Feuersprüche [Fire Incantations] had a party atmosphere with dancing, singing, and live music. At midnight, [May 10, 1933] Goebbels appeared and gave a raving discourse known as the Fire Speech. That same night, similar events were held in Munich, Dresden, Frankfurt, and Breslau….” The Library Book, by Susan Orlean

Calling all book and library lovers and their friends! (Especially print book lovers.) If you’re looking for a last-minute Christmas gift for the reader on your list, stop by your local bookstore and pick up a copy of The Library Book.

While she was writing The Library Book, author Susan Orlean lit a match and burned one of her tattered old paperbacks – just to see what it felt like to burn a sacred object and how easily a book could be set alight. It didn’t feel good, she said, but it was easy to burn once the book reached 451 degrees, the temperature at which paper burns: Fahrenheit 451 vanished in a small conflagration. 

One of the most riveting parts of The Library Book is Orlean’s description of the 1933 Nazi-instigated book burnings in 34 university towns and cities, conducted in part by a minority of college students who called themselves the German Student Union. I’d always imagined small bonfires sacrificing a few hundred books. Maybe because I find book burning incomprehensible, I never conceived of the vast numbers burned – up to 90,000 in one fire! –  or the live music, enthusiastic crowds, and tragic number of libraries destroyed in World War II and other wars, both deliberately and collaterally.

“Books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books. Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the continuity between its past and its future is ruptured. Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: it is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.” 

Susan Orlean is one of the most brilliant contemporary American writers of nonfiction. She writes for The New Yorker and has authored many books; I’ve read only one other: the quirky The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, which was made into the movie Adaptation (starring Meryl Street, Nicolas Cage, and Chris Cooper.) The book is strange and marvelous, and the movie is even stranger – perhaps not to everyone’s taste. If you love books, though, you’ll find The Library Book more accessible yet equally as passionate. Orlean is a book-lover from way back and writes movingly about her childhood library visits with her mother, who always said that if she’d had a career, she would have been a librarian.

Susan’s private book burning and those of the Germans echo and deepen The Library Book’s central plot, which involves the tragic burning of the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986. It burned for seven hours; over 400,000 books were destroyed and 700,000 more damaged. No one is sure whether the fire was arson or an accident. The prime suspect, Harry Peak, a compulsive but likable liar and something of a tragic figure, changed his story every time he was questioned by the police. Woven into the story of the burning and resurrection of the LA Public Library is Orlean’s love letter to books, reading, libraries, and librarians.

Susan writes of her own motivation to write, one of the most eloquent and true statements I’ve ever read about why someone would devote oneself to this painstaking labor:

“I fear not just that I, personally, will be forgotten, but that we are all doomed to being forgotten – that the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed…..But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are part of a larger story that has shape and purpose – a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future. We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string. Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.” 

Isn’t this why we haunt libraries and bookstores, to find those singular voices, many from the past, that for whatever reason speak to us so personally and vividly?

“You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most peculiar book was written with that kind of courage — the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past, and to what is still to come.” 

Like Susan, I’d never heard about this:

“In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it – with one person or with the larger world – on the page or in a story recited – it takes on a life of its own.”

These excerpts don’t even begin to address Orlean’s fine chapters about libraries,  librarians, their history, and their future. Having been a book editor and a (medical/academic) librarian, I’ve heard more than once from people who are quite sure  books will disappear and that we no longer need libraries. To them, I’d say: fake news, conspiracy theories and the disruption of democracy. I’d point them to these and many, many other links:

Helsinki’s New Library

Seoul, Korea’s newest library

Dr. Google is a liar

Free Narcan to libraries

The New York Public Library website – check out the education and research pages alone

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter

I leave you with this arresting image from The Library Book, which takes place around the clock in my hometown of Cleveland:

“The lobby of the OverDrive headquarters [in Cleveland] is huge and high. A ten-foot-square screen that displays a world map dominates the center of the lobby. Every few seconds, a bubble pops up from somewhere on the map, showing the name of the library and the title of the book that had just been borrowed. The screen is mesmerizing. If you stand there for a few minutes, you will see that someone at a small library in Arles, France, has just checked out L’Instant présent by Guillaume Musso; that someone in Boulder, Colorado, has borrowed Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling; and that in Mexico City, someone has claimed a copy of El cuerpo en que nací by Guadalupe Nettel. It feels like you’re watching a real-time thought map of the world.”

By the way, the American Library Association maintains yearly lists of books that have been challenged, restricted, removed, or banned.

Up next: My best read of 2018 – a fat volume of fiction several inches thick, with a cover that is a work of art. Wondrous and important.

 

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Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I hope you find some good books under the tree. Woodblock prints by @blueberry_hills.

 

 

Great books coming this fall

Been too long away from the blog. Visiting family, and it’s the busiest time of year at the library, where I’ve had the privilege of working with eleven first-year medical students. I’ll be their personal librarian for the next four years, a role we librarians are inventing and making our own as we go along.

When it comes to Books Can Save A Life, I often wonder who might stop by and whether I can make their visit personal and meaningful, especially considering most of my readers are anonymous.

One thing I know, I have to feel passionate or intensely curious about the books, writers, and topics I feature here.

You may be inspired to read some of the books or authors you find on Books Can Save A Life but, ultimately, I hope Books gives you a moment of pleasure, speaks to some aspect of your own life, stirs up memories of past good reads, or inspires you to try a new path in your personal reading.

After visiting my favorite book spots on the Internet, I was energized to find that this fall will bring a perfect storm of new fiction and nonfiction by some of our best writers. Everyone in the book world is excited about the upcoming publishing season.

Some of my favorite authors will publish new books, and others have been on my to-read list for a while. This fall and winter I want to feature some of them on Books Can Save A Life. Let’s immerse ourselves in the spirit and mood of our time. What are our obsessions, passions, predictions, hopes, fears, delusions and delights? How are we, personally, caught up in all of it?

Let’s find out.

Tops on my list are Barbara Kingsolver and Ian McEwan.

I loved Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Her new book, Flight Behavior, is right up my alley, with a larger-than-life plot about a farmer’s wife caught up in a biological disaster that draws worldwide attention and fuels the controversy over climate change.

Sweet Tooth book coverI’ve read McEwan’s Saturday twice (someday I’ll tell you why that book is so special to me), and I’m looking forward to his Sweet Tooth.  It’s about a Cold War spy who falls in love with the novelist she’s supposed to be manipulating. One reviewer calls it a complex “Russian doll of a novel” that’s really about readers, reading, how we respond to fiction, and what we want from it.

Mark Helprin will have a new book out, too, In Sunlight and In Shadow. Have any of you read Winter’s Tale? Among other things, it’s a love letter to New York City of the early 1900s (and of the future.) I read it when I was saying goodbye to New York and a particular time in my life. Helprin’s newest book takes place in post World War II New York and is, I think, a similarly fabulous and grand tale.

I’m curious about J.K. Rowling’s new novel, The Casual Vacancy, but I may wait for the reviews to make the commitment.

Some authors publishing this fall I’ll be meeting for the first time:

San Miguel, by T. C. Boyle (two families on an island off the coast of California)

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon (two families in Oakland, California – doesn’t that sound just like Boyle’s book?)

This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz (all kinds of love)

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, by D. T. Max (a biography of David Foster Wallace)

But first, I promised you Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor in August. Better late than never, it’s a book I can’t pass up that will be front and center in my next post.

Also coming up: two book stories to share with you from a couple of my readers, and a trip to Buenos Aires in October, where I’ll be re-reading Imagining Argentina and writing about my adventures.

What are you reading? Are there any forthcoming books you plan to buy the minute they’re available?

She read The Lord of the Rings and said what you’re not supposed to say to get the job

…everyone deserves these chances, moments when something pierces the everyday and points a path toward health and wholeness, toward growth and adventure and change.   – Adrienne Furness

In February, when we began talking about The Hunger Games (the book and the movie), I asked readers to share books that affected them in a profound way when they were growing up.

A couple of people said The Lord of the Rings trilogy had been an unforgettable and transformative reading experience. I considered writing about J. R. Tolkien’s trilogy on Books Can Save a Life, but I knew I couldn’t do his books justice. I’d read Tolkien when I was young, but for whatever reason his fantasy novels didn’t speak to me in the way they have to countless other readers.

Then the other day I visited a favorite blog, What Adrienne Thinks About That, authored by a librarian friend, Adrienne Furness. Adrienne is a superb librarian and a superb writer. Anyone, child or adult, who walks into her library is very lucky indeed. She has just become director of the Henrietta Public Library, and there’s a story behind how that came about.

Adrienne graciously agreed to let me re-post her story:

When I went on my interview, the hiring committee asked me why I became a librarian. For many years now, people who give advice on these matters have been telling librarians not to answer this question, “Because I love to read.”

But I answered this question the same way I’ve answered it in every single job interview I’ve ever gone on. I told the truth.

I became a librarian because I love to read.

The Fellowship of the RingI tell this story often because it was a moment that’s defined my life: I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time when I was in the fifth grade. I got to the end and was overwhelmed by the sadness of the story being over, and so I got my copy of The Fellowship of the Ring and read the whole trilogy again.

I’ve reread the series more times than I can count. My love for these books has nothing to do with elves or magic or swords, although those things are all fine, as far as I’m concerned. What makes me return to this story again and again, though, is the notion of life as a quest. My fifth grade self couldn’t have articulated what she found in those books, but I know now that I needed to see that even the smallest person can step away from comfort and into challenge, that change is possible on scales small and large, that our efforts and intentions matter. The story reinforced for me that there are things in this world worth protecting–fellowship and love, food and conversation, adventure and courage, songs and stories. These are the things that sustain us when life is difficult, when we are hurt or afraid and have to be so much braver than we feel.

These books told me to find people who value the things I do and to treasure them, because they are essential. That’s a lesson that led me from fifth grade straight to this moment when I’m sitting here writing this to you.

I’ll never know how many lives have changed because of a book I made sure was on the shelf or something I helped someone find, but I’ll spend my last couple weeks at WPL watching children check out stacks of books, knowing that some of them will find something that will still matter to them when they’re adults trying to figure out this world that defies understanding.

I became a librarian because everyone deserves these chances,  moments when something pierces the everyday and points a path toward health and wholeness, toward growth and adventure and change.

I believe we all get to write our own stories. When I was in fifth grade, I decided my story was going to be a little epic.

I like the way that’s working out so far.

About Adrienne

Henrietta Public Library’s newly appointed director, Adrienne Furness, was formerly head of the Children’s Department at the Webster Public Library in Webster, NY, where she managed over $100,000 in grants focused on providing better services to homeschoolers in Monroe County, expanding the reach of storytimes and other literature-based programs, and creating a space for tweens in the Children’s Room.

Adrienne is the author of Helping Homeschoolers in the Library, ALA Editions, 2008. She has taught library staff all over the country about working with homeschoolers, and has published articles in Library Journal, School Library Journal, Public Libraries, Children and Libraries, and AudioFile Magazine.

Share your book stories

If you’d like to share a story about a book that is special to you, send an email to valoriegracehallinan[at]gmail[dot]com with the subject line: My Book Story. Please include a post of about 500 words or less in the body of the email or an idea/book you’re interested in writing about.

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