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.

My rush to judgment

I saw the short video of the Covington Catholic School student face to face with the drumming Indigenous Elder. I believed what I was told, and watched as it echoed around my social media chamber, read the comments as they piled up, agreed that it was reprehensible. I listened to what the Elder said he felt in those minutes of his song.

Later I read the student’s statement and watched a longer video with more angles and discovered there was a bigger story. As counter-claims emerged I sensed embarrassment settle over the viral landscape. Clearly there’d been a rush to judgment. My first reaction was relief that I hadn’t re-tweeted or shared the video, that apart from a single “like” to someone’s comment I’d kept quiet. But then I remembered that I’d believed everything I was told and was plenty disgusted at those boys with their MAGA hats.

I also remembered that watching the first video I’d wondered about the student’s face. I was puzzled by his strange smile which didn’t actually seem jeering, though it did seem nervous and stubborn and maybe uncomprehending. As that video panned to students behind the Elder, I thought they seemed unsure what was going on, laughing uneasily like adolescents caught in something stupid. I remembered these tiny doubts about what I saw but I’d kept quiet about them too, because I was afraid if I voiced them I would be shouted down by the Comments crowd, and that just makes me more unsure of myself. Besides, by then I’d abandoned all doubt as I rushed off to absolute judgment.

     Maybe the speed of viral is simply too fast. Too dangerous.

Is there room for judgment here? Of course. But oh that it could be slow and measured. Weighed. Maybe the speed of viral is simply too fast. Too dangerous. Some of the people I follow and most trust and respect are acknowledging their own rush to judgment and asking good questions. Some media are attempting to investigate further and thus add nuance. But it’s still pretty loud and lively out there.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I’m not re-parsing this situation or rushing to some illusory other side, or even saying my doubts were right. Just that they were there, which might have been a signal to me to pause and wait! I’ve now seen both ugliness and dignity in this scenario, but I honestly do not know what happened. I’ve realized again how quickly I join the rush and wish I’d hung on to the “benefit” of doubt a while longer.

Hillary Rodham Clinton in Vancouver

My daughter and I joined a crowd of some 5000 at the convention centre in Vancouver this morning/afternoon to hear Hillary Rodham Clinton. We’ve both been Canadian fans of hers and were very disappointed when she lost the U.S. election just over a year ago; an evening that we thought would be a celebration of the first woman president turned into a long walk in the crisp night air to process our disbelief and emotions.

I’m not posting here to stump for Hillary in retrospect, however, but just to tell a little about today’s event from my perspective–because it was great fun and inspiriting too. We arrived soon after the doors opened 9-ish, though it didn’t start until 11:30. A long line had already formed around the building. We secured the closest spots possible in the cavernous hall, in the Silver section, also known as the Somewhat Cheaper Seats Where You Don’t Get a Copy of the Book. But no problem, I’ve already read the warm and very honest memoir, What Happened, and enjoyed it. For the next hours we hung out together, talking and reading and chatting with folks seated around us. The woman next to me had a HRC figurine in her purse. She kept it on her desk, she said, for inspiration I presume. So, without direct access to Hillary herself we photographed the figurine in the blue pantsuit, and the poster!

 

 

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