Burning Libraries

When author Susan Orlean sat out to write her latest book – The Library Book – she typed in libraries burned into the search bar. She was surprised to find that Wikipedia had a whole list on libraries that had been destroyed with intent. The most libraries

There is even a term to describe those who burn, mutilate, or otherwise destroy books: Biblioclast. Of course it was the stormtroopers of Nazi Germany who went about Europe gathering up heaps of books and burning them. But did you know that in the 1950s, under U.S. judicial order, over six tons of books by psychoanalyst William Reich, author of several notable books, including The Mass Psychology of Fascism,  were burned in America? (Can’t have anyone learning about the reasons for the rise of Fascism, can we?).

And to think, within a 3-mile radius of where I currently live there are large ranches and suburban ranch homes flying Confederate flags with unabashed, and yes, even prideful racists intentions. My sister-in-law tells me that in the Willamette Valley where she lives and works, she is witnessing more and more vehicles with Confederate flags flying. This is not being done out of ignorance. They are flying these flags for one reason only – they want you to know that they are white nationalists.

There is a reason tyrants destroy books, burn libraries, Orlean said: It’s to mess with the minds of the people they are seeking to control. Psychological warfare. When you destroy a library you tell a people that they don’t matter. Their history. Their stories. Their very existence is in essence erased.

Or as I have often taught: He who controls what you read, controls what you think. Or if you think.  Just consider for a moment how Donald J. Trump has controlled the world through Social Media. We used to be a nation that rose early in the mornings to hear from our Creator. Now we are a nation of people who rise early in the morning to hear from our Destroyer. Trump has managed to usurp control of the minds and will of people one tweet at a time. This all from a man who in his entire adult life has never read a book.

Orlean was in Bend as part of the Deschutes County Library Author Author series.  She taught a writing workshop I was able to attend, thanks to daughter Shelby who bought me a ticket. For Christmas, I had given Shelby a copy of Orlean’s latest book about the 1986 burning of the Los Angeles Downtown Library. I have been an admirer of Orlean’s work since I read The Orchard Thief  back during the Y2k era. Did you read that book?  The character of John Laroche has echoed with me as a journalist and author over the decades. Let’s just say that I have met more than my fair share of John Laroches in my lifetime and they don’t all live down South.

I thought of Laroche the night I knocked on a camper door at a trailer park in Stanfield, Oregon, seeking help on a double-homicide case. A cross-dresser answered the door cupping a blue margarine bowl filled with steaming pinto beans, and rambling on about the judgment of God at hand. I also thought of Laroche the moment an inmate at the Umatilla County jail exposed her breast to me to show off her best tattoo – a rose. And I thought of Laroche when my buddy Tim Wright gave me a tour of his greenhouse where he was cultivating different species of orchards.

I had to leave Orlean’s workshop early as I had one of my own graduate classes to attend, but first I stopped to chat with her about Laroche and my admiration for her work. During the workshop, Orlean had spoken about how she had recently signed up to be an online volunteer for an app that helps those who are blind or sight-impaired. A woman who was impaired had dropped something and she was unable to find where she had dropped it. So she had used the app which connected her to Orlean, who then via Facetime chat could help direct the blind woman to the item she had dropped.

The app is called Be My Eyes. That, said Orlean, is the real job of any writer – to be the eyes of the reader, putting them in the moment, helping them to see what the writer sees or imagines.

Years ago, back about the time I read Orlean’s story of John Laroche, I had a dream in which I was given a Bible verse by a monkey. Don’t ask. I have no idea why a monkey. The verse was Revelation 1:2: “And John testified to everything that he saw.”

That verse, given to me in a dream by a monkey one bright Sunday morning, has been the app that has guided me as a writer, an educator, and as a woman.

As I sat in the Bend High School auditorium last night listening to Orlean talk about all the many moments, the quinky-dinks, that prompted her to write the story of the arson that destroyed LA’s downtown library, I thought of something else Orlean had said earlier in the workshop: Look for the surprising detail. 

She’s a master at noticing the surprising detail (something she learned the hard way her earlier reading of an essay she wrote for The New Yorker reveals). In that essay – Out of the Woods – Orlean admitted to once renting a vacation home in Central Oregon that lacked a bathroom of any sort. A detail both she and her then boyfriend had overlooked when booking the rental. Not the sort of detail anyone booking a vacation rental should overlook.

As I glanced around the packed auditorium of those listening to Orlean talk about her research for her latest book, I noticed a detail that should surprise me more than it does: All of the people in the audience were white folks. Squinting hard and looking toward the front on my left, I thought there might have been one lone black woman. But I couldn’t be sure she was black, maybe it was just the lighting on that particular side of the stage. I also didn’t see any teenagers in the audience. It felt briefly like I could have been at a gathering of Republican donors, except for the fact we were talking about books and reading instead of NASCAR and Jesus tonic water that protects people from the coronavirus.

Maybe it doesn’t mean anything that there were no noticeable people of color in the audience of hundreds. I can’t say for sure what it is indicative of, but it felt an awful lot like one of those moments when you realize with mortifying horror that the vacation rental you booked lacked something very essential.

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of MOTHER OF RAIN (Mercer University Press) and a whole bunch of other books.

Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

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