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Journal of No. 118


April 11th, 2019

The Library Book / The Night Ocean @ 02:27 pm


 The Library Book, by Susan Orlean, details two interleaved stories. One, the history of the Los Angeles Public Library, with a focus on the Central Library. Two, the story of the fire that ravaged the Central Library in 1986.

Even though I was living not that far away, I don't have any memory of the event. One possible reason is that the Chernobyl Disaster occurred at essentially the same time. (I certainly remember that!).

Arson was suspected, and ultimately the finger of suspicion was pointed at Harry Peak, a wannabe actor and pathological liar who told multiple conflicting stories to friends and authorities about how he spent his day, everything from "I did it" to "I was nowhere near it."

On the one hand, given that the case was largely circumstantial, I think it was probably the right call to drop the criminal case. On the other hand, I think Orlean is far too generous in her treatment of Peak. At one point, she says that Peak was always in search of *positive* attention, and thus the library fire would be uncharacteristic. This ignores the fact that he literally bragged about being the arsonist -- apparently he didn't have that big an issue with attracting negative attention.

And now for the Kindle notes:

Best title ever: "It housed the largest collection of books on food and cooking in the country—twelve thousand volumes, which included three hundred on French cuisine, thirty on cooking with oranges and lemons, and six guides to cooking with insects, including the classic Butterflies in My Stomach."


Some notes from just after the fire, as there was a need to deal with thousands of water-logged smoke-damaged books: 

Los Angeles has a multimillion-dollar fish-processing industry and one of the largest produce depots in the country, so there were huge freezers in town. Someone suggested contacting a few of those fish and produce companies. Though their freezers were full, the companies agreed to clear some space for the books. The volunteers were sent home with instructions to come back at dawn.

IBM gave its employees time off to volunteer. The next morning, close to two thousand people showed up at the library. Overnight, the city managed to procure thousands of cardboard boxes, fifteen hundred hard hats, a few thousand rolls of packing tape, and the services of Eric Lundquist, a mechanical engineer and former popcorn distributor who had reinvented himself as an expert in drying out wet things

The wet and smoke-damaged books were taken in refrigerated trucks to the food warehouses, where they were stored on racks between frozen shrimp and broccoli florets at an average temperature of 70 below 0. No one really knew when the wrecked books would be thawed out or how many of them could be saved. Nothing on this scale had ever been attempted.


A look into Harry Peak's life, as the author interviews his sister: "[mother] Annabell Peak worked as a cashier at a supermarket in what would be considered the wrong direction—the store was on the edge of Los Angeles. I told [sister] Debra that I lived in Los Angeles, and she thought I might be familiar with the supermarket. “It’s the one near L.A., you know, that’s owned by the Jew,” she said. “You know that one, don’t you?”"

Librarians as heroes: 

A battery recycling plant in the neighborhood had contaminated soil with toxic levels of lead, necessitating the largest lead cleanup in California history. Exide Technologies, which operated the plant, had just agreed to fund blood tests for the twenty-one thousand households in the neighborhood. The tests would be conducted at the Boyle Heights Branch Library. In times of trouble, libraries are sanctuaries. They become town squares and community centers—even blood-draw locations. In Los Angeles, there have been plenty of disasters requiring libraries to fill that role. In 2016, for instance, a gas storage facility in the Porter Ranch neighborhood sprang a leak, and methane whooshed out, giving residents headaches, nosebleeds, stomachaches, and breathing problems. Eventually, the entire area had to be evacuated. With the help of industrial-strength air purifiers, the library managed to stay open. It became a clearinghouse for information about the crisis, as well as a place where residents could gather while exiled from home. The head of the branch noticed how anxious patrons seemed, so she set up yoga and meditation classes to help people relieve stress. Staff librarians learned how to fill out the expense forms from Southern California Gas so they could assist people applying to get reimbursed for housing and medical costs. American Libraries Magazine applauded the library’s response, noting, “Amid a devastating gas leak, Porter Ranch library remains a constant.”

Speaking of other fires I hadn't heard of, she mentions the Proud Bird Fire.
 

"When he finished writing the book, Bradbury tried to come up with a better title than “The Fireman.” He couldn’t think of a title he liked, so one day, on an impulse, he called the chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department and asked him the temperature at which paper burned. The chief’s answer became Bradbury’s title: Fahrenheit 451. When Central Library burned in 1986, everything in the Fiction section from A through L was destroyed, including all of the books by Ray Bradbury."

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The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge, makes for a strange read. I guess ultimately, it's a story about a monster. La Farge certainly soaked in Lovecraftiana and one of the major counterfactual elements of the story is the idea that Lovecraft was gay and left behind a sexual diary of his exploits that was uncovered in the 1950s, causing a furore in fandom (and HUAC). The bits of its text reproduced in the novel are (while completely unbelievable) strangely believable. La Farge has some of the feel of Lovecraft's letters down quite well. The diary is soon exposed as a hoax, and then the actual story of the novel is a modern investigation of the hoaxer and who he really was or is. Could he be Robert Barlow, Lovecraft's friend and literary executor, reputed to have committed suicide in Mexico?

Sadly, this is one of those books where, when you get close to the end, you can tell that there aren't enough pages left for a GREAT ending. So while I didn't ultimately love the book, I appreciate the way it embodies a counterfactual world like that of Lovecraft - a world like our own apart from the existence of a particular book or other particular facts. Another topic it subtly bumps up against is Lovecraft's legacy... how would things be different if he was a 'pervert' instead of a racist? Or both a pervert and a racist.

Although it's a broad wink at the initiated, I also adore the name of the protagonist, Dr. Marina Willett.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
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Journal of No. 118