Susan Orlean on libraries

Yesterday a friend and I went to hear journalist Susan Orlean, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of eight books, talk about her latest, The Library Book. The event was held, fittingly enough, at the Vancouver Public Library, a place I find compelling and enjoy spending time in even though its Colosseum-look seems, to my eye, somehow incongruous in this dynamic and contemporary city. But never mind, the book isn’t about this library in particular but about the Los Angeles Public Library and its devastation by fire in 1986, though it’s also, by extension, about libraries in general. download

My friend read Orlean’s book; I haven’t yet, though I listened to her in conversation with Eleanor Wachtel. She’s a dynamic and articulate presenter, which isn’t necessarily the case with (us) writers, so the evening–to a packed hall–was both entertaining and informative. She’s been speaking about her book a lot, so I’m sure that helps; it’s down to a fine polish.

Orlean has a reputation for landing on unusual topics–a taxidermist competition, for example, or the dog Rin Tin Tin. And now a library. She arrives at them, she said, by “responding to an authentic curiosity I can’t shake off.” She’s delighted, she said, by two “species” of stories: 1. “something familiar I realize I know nothing about” or 2. “a story hiding in plain sight.” Her exploration of the L.A. library and its history combined those two.

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Susan Orlean, VPL Mar. 6, 2019

It took her six years to learn and write that story. “I see myself as a student,” she said. “The moment I feel I could teach [the material] is how I know I’ve learned it.” The book is “meticulously researched,” interviewer Carol Shaben noted, and, I gathered, the book wanders about considering almost everything imaginable concerning libraries. Orlean’s answer to the question of how she worked a topic so sprawling into a structure was interesting. The experience of the narrative, she suggested, was like being in a library, you might pull a book off the shelf about arson and then another on, say, shelving, and then another about something else. But always it circles back to: “there was this this terrible event, and why does that matter?”

download (1)It matters, she said, because libraries matter: physical, communal, shared spaces, one of the few public places left without commerce. They’re the memory of a culture or civilization. And, they’re not without vulnerability. As with the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986 and on numerous other occasions in history, they can be burned.

“Not much money but a completely fascinating profession”: FBCW Books Alive event

Lots of books, lots of options, stay open and be flexible. (And it’s fascinating!)

That’s what I took away from the Federation of B.C. Writers’ “Books Alive Brown Bag Publishing Fair” at the Vancouver Public Library on Saturday. I’m still new to the writing scene in this province, so I enjoyed meeting others and also hearing presentations from a variety of industry specialists. A few things that grabbed my attention from three of them:

Jamie Broadhurst of Raincoast Books: Did he say 250,000 new titles published in North America each year, maybe triple that self-published? If I got that right, it’s no wonder I can’t keep up! He also said Canada is currently the most successful English language trade market, for a number of reasons, one of them being that libraries here have healthy acquisition budgets.

Paul Whitney, former chief librarian of Vancouver: Do we need more books (see previous paragraph)? His answer: “The impetus to create is powerful.” The key issue, he said, is the reader’s time. He spoke of “the stressed reader.” And this: “The library provides an afterlife for a book, after its commercial life.”

Betsy Warland, writing coach and author: “You have to be more flexible and imaginative [today] in how you get your work out there… Stay open and keep being informed about alternatives… We’re earning less and having to put more money in… Be inventive, playful… Have to be very self-reliant, way more than [before], have to have a platform, bigger skill set… Not much money but a completely fascinating profession.”

 

Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page

41nBAtsStsL._SX315_BO1,204,203,200_Dear Evelyn opens with a birth — of Harry Miles, who is half the couple featured in the book. I’d just read some wonderfully feisty comments by the late Margaret Laurence about birth scenes in novels, so was immediately positively predisposed to this novel by Kathy Page, which dared such a scene right out of the gate. (A male reviewer of Laurence’s first novel, This Side Jordan, had wondered about “the obligatory birth scene in novels written by women,” which infuriated Laurence, though the good thing was, “that dolt” launched “a kind of self-liberation” for her in writing. Fine for men to write endlessly of violence or masturbation or sexual conquest, she said, but “not at all right, apparently, for a women to speak of the miraculous beginnings of human life.” After that, she never hesitated to write about birth, “from the viewpoint of the mother.”*)

And then, I happened to read Tess Hadley in a Guardian interview saying she wanted to write about long marriages (as apparently she does in her latest book, Late in the Day), because “they seem immensely interesting and they are kind of new in a way … people just live so much longer,” and I thought, well I certainly like to read about long marriages, being — at 44 years and counting — well on the way into a long marriage myself, and there I was, happily into Dear Evelyn too, which is exactly on the topic.

It’s not that Page’s novel needs these asides from Laurence or Hadley to bulk its worth, but I mention them by way of noting how often it’s the entire atmosphere of reading — current circumstances, personal life stage, other voices bumping alongside — that makes a particular book memorable. At any rate, with or without all that, Dear Evelyn is a fine and memorable book. Page skilfully unfolds the characters and experiences of Harry Miles and Evelyn Hill — from his birth to her death — in linked short stories. Each chapter/story treats of a specific episode or slice of their separate or joint lives, but the sum of them feels seamless, as if everything in between has been revealed to us as well.

Harry and Evelyn meet outside a library, and he is taken not only with her beauty but her strong sense of striving. “A girl like her would need him to be ambitious, more so than he had been so far. Even as he realized this, he committed to it.” We already know that poetry grabbed hold of Harry’s head and heart under the tutelage of his teacher Mr. Whitehorse, and at this early point it’s easy enough to assume that his “ear for verse” and nascent interest will grow and be fulfilled. But that’s the thing about life and marriage — they limit, even thwart. Which is why Harry and Evelyn as couple is a story of love but far from a happily-ever-after one. Their ambitions, so compatible at one level, compete drastically at another, not to mention the changing and powerful shaping circumstances of war (and the separation and temptations it imposed), children, and old age.

A week after finishing the book I’m still thinking about this fictional relationship. Does one admire, or pity? Can fault, realistically speaking, be laid? The 2018 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize jury, which awarded Dear Evelyn the win, called the novel “tender and unsettling.” Yes. Both those words.

 

*Margaret Laurence, Dance on the Earth