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The Sensation of Taboo: An Interview with Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean interviewed by Thomas Phillips.

Susan Orlean lives in Los Angeles and is best known for her book The Orchid Thief, which was the basis for Spike Jonze’s film Adaptation. In her most recent work of nonfiction, The Library Book, she tells the story of Harry Peak, an eccentric young man whose alleged arson attack against the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986 destroyed 400,000 books. Tracing the cultural significance of libraries throughout history, she examines the human compulsion to archive memories and the tragedy of their destruction, either through deliberate acts or what she describes as “the corrosive effect of time.”

3:AM Magazine: Why did you decide to burn an actual book as part of your research?

Susan Orlean: Well, for two reasons. Number one is that, because I was writing about 400,000 books being burned, it seemed important and useful to actually see it so that I could have a visual reference. But really more to the point, I was very curious about the sensation of taboo and the thought that this was something that felt really transgressive. I was curious whether that was something I was imagining or whether it was true that the idea of burning books was so wrong. I wanted to push myself and assess the level of comfort or discomfort that I had about it.

3:AM: And did it feel like a taboo as you were doing it?

SO: Oh absolutely. I mean, it was a very strange, uncomfortable sensation. I almost couldn’t do it. I thought it was so funny and so silly in a way, and yet it really was very uncomfortable.

3:AM: When you’re describing your initial reluctance to burn it you mention that you see the deliberate destruction of books as an act of cruelty because you believe they have this kind of life force. What do you mean by that?

SO: Well I think that books have always felt to a very surprising degree somewhat human and much more closely connected to us than you would think of paper and ink and glue. They’re a receptacle for thoughts and narratives and fantasies and imagery and memory. They really are just a sort of external collection of those things that go on in our heads, it’s just a mechanism for externalising what’s internal. And I think that we feel it. I mean, they feel really intimate and human.

3:AM: You write about how you never thought about fire very much before moving to LA but now you feel it “prowling everywhere”. How do LA’s omnipresent fires affect your relationship with the land around you compared to when you were living in New York?

SO: I never thought about fire as a natural element very much when I was living in New York. It’s a completely different phenomenon than in California where you feel like the fire is just waiting to bloom. As a homeowner, you have to think about it all the time and take measures to protect yourself. It feels like a constant here. Burning that book was really frightening because I knew that I had to be really careful, that I couldn’t just sit outside and light a match and burn a book without making sure that I had water around and that I was going to be really careful. I had visions of setting off a crazy wildfire. That’s really what life is like here in the sense that you’re always keeping fire at bay a little bit.

3:AM: The book also describes LA as having an innately weird and unhinged quality. To what extent do you think that weirdness was a catalyst for Harry Peak’s eccentric behaviour and potentially his alleged arson?

SO: Well I don’t think that LA made Harry Peak crazy. I’m not even sure how I would describe Harry Peak anyway, because he’s such a complex character. But I think there is something to the fact that an environment attracts a certain type of person and perhaps brings out qualities in somebody. I think that there’s no question that LA embodies this striving fantasy of glamour and celebrity that has a hypnotic effect on a lot of people and that someone who’s really vulnerable to that is probably affected by it a great deal.

3:AM: How did you respond when you found out Harry Peak had passed away and you wouldn’t be able to hear his personal account of what happened?

SO: Well I at first thought, ‘oh my god I can’t do the book.’ I really felt like, ‘yikes, that kind of ruins it for me.’ And then I thought, ‘well, I’ve written about historical figures and they’re all dead so that’s a different version of the same thing.’ And I was able to talk to his family which certainly was important. But it changed it for sure. If he had been alive it would have been a very, very different book. But that’s the nature of nonfiction. You wrestle with the realities of what is available to you and what you can know and build the story from there.

3:AM: You describe writing a book or building a library as an act of defiance against the “corrosive effect of time” and the idea that we’ll all be forgotten. Do you think this was a motivating factor in your own decision to become an author?

SO: Oh, a hundred percent! A hundred percent! I think that there’s no question in my mind that from the time I could remember having such thoughts, the possibility of living on through something I created meant a lot to me and felt really important.

3:AM: You also mention that recording your memories to be around after you’ve gone gives life meaning.

SO: I think that human beings are always trying to make sense of the strange nature of being alive and how you figure it out is sometimes creating something that can live on. I think that is very deeply imbedded in our existential quest for meaning; this idea that there is more than just your little brief life, but something bigger than you that you’re trying to create. For many people that’s having children or building a fortune or whatever it is that matters to you that goes beyond your existence.

3:AM: Do you mind talking about how your mother’s dementia inspired you to write The Library Book?

SO: Yeah for sure, because that was very much part of it. This all began with a revery about my experience as a kid going to the library with my mom. That memory suddenly became threatened in the sense that one half of it, the half in my mind, was there but the half in my mother’s mind was not. The idea of somehow making it permanent and having it last even beyond my memory became really important to me. It was very much a meta theme of the book because I was writing about how books preserve our memories and then at the same moment was addressing that in my own life with this very specific memory and the very specific wish to have some permanent record of this memory. It became more and more meaningful as my mom’s memory eroded. It felt essential. I suppose it provided some element of comfort to me as I was witnessing her losing her ability to remember.

3:AM: In the chapter about the destruction of libraries in times of war you describe book burning as destroying “cultural DNA.” How does this type of loss affect a culture?

SO: The impact, I think, is emotional and psychological, in that it’s a message to a culture that it can be destroyed and its memory can be wiped out. I think the impact is profound. It’s slightly different from a past in which manuscripts might be destroyed that were truly unique and irreplaceable, but I think the message is still one of erasure and domination and that your access to knowledge is being removed.

3:AM: You mention that American libraries used to be exclusive and elite places but in the 20th century they changed into democratic public resources. What do you think are the main differences between these two eras?

SO: I think libraries in the past were about educated people getting more educated. They were resources for people who already were intellectually sophisticated, and there wasn’t this more populist notion that a library is for the betterment of everybody. It was just a really different attitude toward the idea of what a library is. If you go back in time they were limited to men, they were limited to adults, they were not welcoming to people who were not elite. Even though they were public libraries they didn’t have the mission of the public at the centre of what they did. It’s kind of fascinating how an institution could change so dramatically in it’s actual purpose for being. When I point out to people that children used to be forbidden to be in the library, it strikes everyone as so funny since children are so essential to the mission of most libraries. They weren’t seen as a public utility for knowledge and education and information.

3:AM: Aside from book-ending and archiving, what do you think are the most crucial roles that public libraries play today?

SO: I think that the most important function they have is to be a communal entry point into the world of knowledge and information, however you might use that. If you’re a scholar you might use it one way, if you’re a refugee learning English you may use it a different way, if you’re a teenager you use it a different way. The way a public park is the communal resource for outdoor experience, a library is the communal centrepoint for the life of the mind.

3:AM: You also mention that the issue of how to cater to homeless visitors is one of the most pressing concerns facing libraries today.

SO: I think that it’s a reality of libraries being open and welcoming that they are one of the few places that homeless people can go and be safe and comfortable. I think there are genuine issues to ask about how libraries should or can cope with a large influx of homeless patrons because their needs are different. But I think the problem is that society isn’t dealing with the issue of homelessness. Libraries happen to be a place where everyone is welcome and, since homeless people are not welcome in many places, libraries and parks are two of the places that are contending with this issue. The real issue is that society is not coping with the challenges of huge numbers of homeless people.

3:AM: You describe the public library as a “fundamentally kind” institution. Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

SO: I think the most significant thing is that they are — in their modern iteration — welcoming and non-judgemental and non-punitive. They’re in the role of always expanding who we are, as opposed to being an authority that maintains law and order or levies fines. I think that the generosity of what they do is fundamentally kind and their mission is about adding to the human experience and not subtracting from it.

Susan Orlean is a journalist and bestselling author of The Orchid Thief and The Library Book. She has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, and has contributed articles to many magazines including Vogue, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Outside.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 25th, 2020.