Friday, March 22, 2019

Checking Out “The Library Book”

Books and reading tables make for a great backdrop in so many movies. George Peppard declares his love for Audrey Hepburn in a New York library in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. High school kids (Molly Ringwald and Emilio Estevez among them) serve their Saturday morning detention in the school library in The Breakfast Club. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman search for evidence of high crimes in the Nixon White House by scouring the collection of the Library of Congress in All The President’s Men. Cop Morgan Freeman tracks down the m.o. of a serial killer through an eerie late-night visit to a police library in Se7en.

Those of us who are book lovers feel we know what libraries look like, feel like, sound like (Ssssh!). And we have in our heads a clear image of librarians: usually females of a certain age, wearing glasses on the tips of their noses, shushing the patrons, clearly more comfortable with books than people. (At home they cuddle with their cats, while reading Jane Austen and sipping hot milk.) It’s true there’ve been a series of made-for-television fantasy movies called The Librarian (and later The Librarians), in which the lead characters have nearly magical powers. But mostly when we think of movie librarians we summon up people like Katharine Hepburn as a prickly, no-nonsense research ace in Desk Set, as well as the adorable but oh-so-prim Shirley Jones, keeping order at the Madison Public Library in The Music Man.

The Library Book is determined to change our opinion of libraries, and of librarians, once and for all. It’s written by New Yorker staffer Susan Orlean, whose earlier The Orchid Thief was the basis for the 2002 Spike Jonze film, Adaptation. In the highly original script written by Charlie Kaufman, Orlean (as portrayed by Meryl Streep) becomes something of a fictional character herself, a journalist seduced by her protagonist -- a mangy orchid thief -- into a life of sex, psychedelics, and crime. The real Orlean has had a slightly less colorful life, but there’s no question she’s attracted by off-kilter subject matter.

One off-kilter subject in The Library Book is the late Harry Peak, a would-be actor who on the morning of April 29, 1986 may or may not have set the fire that nearly destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library. Peak, a ne’er-do-well with a winning smile and a compulsion for lying, was investigated but never charged. As a result of the fire, 400,000 volumes were destroyed. Happily the people of Los Angeles rallied to save the wonderfully fanciful library building and to rebuild its collections. The restored and much enlarged library (which dated from 1926) re-opened in 1993 and continues to flourish in the heart of downtown L.A.

Though Harry Peak is a lively presence in The Library Book, the real hero of the story is the library itself. Orlean has peered into every department, interviewed many staff members, and absorbed the pleasures of the renovated building. Along the way, she explores the innovations that libraries (both in Los Angeles and worldwide) are bringing to their communities: new technologies, ideas for social services, programming to appeal to those of all ages and cultural levels. Today’s libraries are, among many other things, repositories of films and film-related programs. 
Many years ago, when I was quite small, TV launched Cavalcade of Books. On its inaugural episode, the show honored the children’s department of the Los Angeles Central Library. There was an actual children’s librarian present, and I was the curly-headed moppet asking for books about dance. How wonderful that the library is thriving again. 

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