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November — The Library Book

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The Ladies Book Club met online from our homes again on Thursday, November 5th. We were there to discuss The Library Book by Susan Orlean. We had 16 women online after they'd clicked on the Zoom session link that Peg Tabor sent beforehand to join the session. Sue Laluk got everyone added to the session, with their audio and video on. Peg started the meeting by welcoming everyone (what she wanted to say was "welcome to our stress-relieving hour" LOL) and reminded everyone that next month we'll have four local authors Zooming with us. As for lunch afterward, she asked whether we felt comfortable going out to lunch. She personally did not, but she asked how the rest of us felt. Most did not. Instead of having a Secret Santa book exchange, she had a unique idea about how we can keep the spirit of that intact — for those wanting to do this, she recommend that we suggest our favorite book, tell us why it means so much to us and what we hope someone else will get out of it, then email it to Peg. She will put them all together and send it out to everyone — our Christmas gift to each other. What a marvelous idea! Peg also noted a new member among us, introducing Mary Jo Johnson's friend, Kristie Carter. Welcome, Kristie!

Next, she told us that we had a discussion leader for all but four books & months left on the list of books we'll be reading in 2021 and listed them (as of this week, only two books/months not taken). As for meeting in person next year, we decided to wait until February when we'll have a better idea of the COVID-19 situation. Variations on what we can do if some members want to return to in-person meetings while others would prefer not taking the chance and continue Zooming. Since only regional centers have internet access, the option of having a hybrid splitting the group. Kristie Carter said that she had hotspot, which would make bringing in Zoom participants possible, but that option didn't appeal to many. We can split the group into two, but then we'd need two discussion leaders. That didn't appeal to anyone, either. For now, we agreed to continue Zooming until things improve and we all feel safe returning to regular meetings. We'll discuss it further in February or later on. February is also the month we usually make our donation to the Sumter County's Pre-K Program. She will contact Jeanne and see if we can make our presentation via Zoom. Thinking of Jeanne, Peg turned to Joyce Tisovec and asked how much club members have donated? We have a record-setting year, getting more money in October, with members donating $1,093. Wow! Joyce asked that we want to donate anymore, she asked that you submit it no later than Wednesday, December 2nd, so she can announce our total for 2020 at our meeting on Thursday. Last year we donated $730 to the program. We outdo ourselves every year.

Announcements and issues out of the way, Peg turned the meeting over to our discussion leader for November, Sunny Wilt. Before she started, Sunny said she had an interesting side note. She found a review written by an Australian, who said that this book is like a library, written like a who-done-it. He makes reference to Ray Bradbury, who grew up in Los Angeles, didn't go to college because his parents couldn't afford it. As a father of four, he was sporadically writing The Fireman. When he finished it, he thought it needed a better title, so he called the L.A. fire department and asked the temperature at which paper burns? It burns at 451˚ Fahrenheit and Fahrenheit 451 became the title of the book, about a community where there was an attempt to burn all the books in the community. The protagonist was a fireman involved in this, who meets a woman who asks why he was doing it? She reads to him from some books, read poetry to him, and he begins to keep some books and hide them, and the story proceeds from there. Sunny thought this was evidence that this book is like a library, taking you on various journeys of information as you read it. And that's what her research did, as well. It took her on various journeys.

Sunny asked how many of us read the book (most did), then whether anyone didn't read it? Then she asked how many of us liked the book and enjoyed the reading? Peg thought it was a love letter to libraries. It was about far more than the fire. Yes, it got tedious in some places, and she wondered where it was going, but by the time she finished the book, she realized that it was epic kind of book in its coverage, talking about anything and everything to do with libraries. Sunny thought it was interesting because many reviews called it that — a love letter to libraries. Peg was a bit disappointed. She thought she'd made that up. Sunny thought the author had that attitude toward librariesShe said that the first time she read the book, she admitted that she had a very difficult time with it. She finally finished it, but then didn't think she could lead the discussion. She figured she had to read it again, but the second time she read it, she couldn't put it down! She thought the author's descriptions and language were so beautiful and so on target, and she had missed that first time around. She was able to visualize everything Orlean wrote. She found a super summary of the book, filled with pages and pages of quotes from the book, and just read them over and over again. They were such a delight. She was so pleased that she read it again. Peg added that when Sunny talked about the language, she recalled how she had laughed out loud at some of the images conjured up, and she wrote down and read some of the phrases that she just loved like... the cookbooks roasted, the fire spread fluidly like spilled ink, etc. Peg held up typed pages where she had saved her favorite phrases.

Next, Sunny gave some background on the author. She graduated from the University of Michigan with honors in 1976, studying literature and history. She lives in a landmark modernist home in Studio City and in New York's Hudson Valley. She was a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, and has been since 1992, is married to a businessman and has one son and a step-son. She started writing for The New Yorker in 1987 and became a staff writer in 1992. Some of the subjects she wrote about were umbrella inventors, origami artists, figure skater Tonya Harding, and other vastly unusual topics. She's also written extensively about animals, birds, animal actors, etc. Before writing for The New Yorker, she published stories in Rolling Stone, Time, Esquire, Vogue, Outside and Spy. In 1982, she moved to Boston and became a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix and was later a regular contributor to the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. Her previously published magazine stories were compiled in two collections, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People and My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere. In 2011, she published a biographical history of the dog actor Rin Tin Tin, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.

What was her inspiration for writing the book? Peg said that at the end of the book she says she wanted to tell about a place she loved that doesn't belong to her, but feels like it's hers.... Eileen Roberta recalled that her mom used to take her to the library a lot when she was little, and they developed a relationship through that experience. She wanted to share that in this book, as well. Her mother had instilled the love of libraries in her. What other role does her mother play in the book, in what other context does she talk about her mother? We all drew a blank, but then Sue recalled that her mother died while she was writing the book. Sunny agreed that her mother died before the book was finished so she never got to see it published, but her mother developed dementia, which was difficult for Orlean, fearing that she might develop it herself. It was terrifying that she might lose her memory, as well. The idea of being forgotten means that her mark on the world is being erased, as if we never existed. Each person's consciousness is a collection of memories; it's a private library of a life lived, which cannot be shared by anyone else unless we take something out of that collection of memories and share it. When someone dies, that collection of memories burns and disappears. That collection takes on a life of its own, and a library does too, and Orlean attributes those human characteristics to the library. Peg added that the author even mentions that in Senegal, the polite expression for when someone dies is to say that their library burned. Had anyone heard of this fire? Most of us hadn't. That's because the Chernobyl meltdown took all the headlines. It made Sunny wonder how many other important events have been overshadowed by other momentous events so never hear about?

What is the role of the library and how has it changed over the years? Also, because of those changes, why does Orlean think libraries won't become extinct? Peg thought they might become extinct as a place to go and take out a paper book, but if people gravitate toward ebooks, the library building may not be as critical, but if libraries respond to the changing times as they have been, they become community centers. Citing her library in Pinellas. The library is even in the same building as Office of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Tax Collector. You can even get your dog's license there. Libraries understand that their role is changing and as long as they are responsive to the community's needs, then they'll survive. She thinks one of the biggest things she was interested in the book was how the library helped the homeless and how it was a sanctuary for the homeless. There were nods of agreement from others, bringing images of homeless people curled up around their libraries. Marcia Shorr worked in the Atlanta area libraries and they weren't ordering encyclopedias anymore. They still had them, but not as many since the information was at your fingertips with computers, and they didn't keep them as long, either. The library was also doing a lot of things to help kids and help them use the computers, had a lot of book clubs meeting there. The kids liked reading a lot of book series like Harry Potter. Joyce chimed in that the book took her down memory lane, as well. Her library had a summer reading club, where you had to go in with your book, sit down with the librarian and talk about their book. That determined whether they got a sticker or not (chuckles all round). She had parents taking her child to the summer reading club and take them to various events at the library, then for undergrad and grad school, and actually volunteering at the school library while her son was in elementary school, helping kids find their books, putting their names on the waiting list for books that they wanted to read. One Judy Blume book had a long waiting list. (Could it have been Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret?) She recalled that the Cleveland Library was huge and so beautiful inside, and so different from the libraries she'd gone to. Joyce added that it was really interesting that many libraries are becoming social service centers, and so many of the authors we've read used libraries extensively.

The book brought back memories for Betty Scanlon, as well. When she was working in the school system, tutors met students in the library. Many of the children couldn't go into someone's home without and adult and the library was a safe place. She lived in New York and they had a skate mobile, where all the kids in the neighborhood brought their skates to the library's parking lot, where they could get books... something different. They also had book mobiles. For the adults, the librarians planned bus trips every month, usually to a historic site or museum. So, the library served many uses. Sunny added that as libraries embraced the internet, they became a hub; most people didn't have computers, so they could use the library's computers. She added that all cultures have some type of library. Peg asked whether any of us had the chance to look at the videos that she sent out? They showed fantastic libraries all over the world. We all enjoyed it. She also reminded us that we read two book this year about the pack horse librarians, which was mentioned in the book as methods for distributing books, along with book mobiles, bike mobiles, book boats and trains, vending machines, a camel, as methods for distributing books. She's also noticed that small free libraries are popping up everywhere, like turning old phone booths into small lending libraries, lending libraries in restaurants and other places, and take-a-book — leave-a-book stands. She thinks there's a lot of creativity out there and libraries have a lot to do with that.

Mary Jo brought to mind our image of the old maid librarian, kind of staid and boring, but there are a lot of men librarians, too. There was a male librarian on Jeopardy, who talked about how wild their conventions were. That reminded Peg of the librarian in the book who was let go when they wanted to hire a man, even though she'd been doing a superb job. Sue, a lawyer, added that it was legal to do that back then. Sue hadn't realized and was surprised that many libraries required a membership fee. She'd always thought of them as being free. Speaking of librarians, Sunny named some of L.A. Library's librarians, then asked us what Charles Loomis did? He was the crazy guy who collected autographs (who would have thought of them as a library collection?). He walked across the country to get to the L.A. library and thought he was better prepared to be the head librarian, wanted to make the library a research center and devise a way to make books easier to find. Most of us didn't pay that much attention to the people who ran the library, so their names didn't come to mind. While Orleans was researching the library and fire, the current head librarian invited her in to see how the library moves books around, from one library to another.

Sunny brought up book burnings and how that became an instrument of war through the ages. Peg thought that countries looked at their written works as evidence of what they'd accomplished, where they'd been, and when those books were burned, they felt their national identity was being destroyed. During World War II, burning Jewish books was another way the Nazis told Jews that they were going to annihilate them. Mary Jo added that the church burned books. Sunny thought books are sometimes a source of hope, opens people to new ideas and different opinions, which may move people to act against the leaders. Libraries are often safe places, but burning books also tells people that no place is safe. One of the quotes from the book is "Where one burns books, one in the end burns men." That's what the Nazis did. First they burned the books, then they burned the people. In Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, destroying the culture was the purpose of burning the books, to wipe out the people's sense of community, their national memory. The affected Orlean; if her mother had dementia, she could get it too and what would that do to her and her ability to write? Mary Jo said that she could get tested, but that couldn't prevent her from getting it.

Any other ideas that came to us while reading? Kristie thought it was interesting that Orlean burned a book, to see how it would burn and how long it would take. We forgot what book she finally decided to burn, but Sue found it... Fahrenheit 451. We all laughed. Earlier on, we talked about the language in the book, but Peg also liked how her writing appealed to the senses. She just fell in love with Orlean's language. She saw what the author wrote, touched them, smelled them. Sunny agreed and was so glad she read the book a second time, so she could concentrate on the way Orlean wrote.

As our time was coming to an end, in summarizing, Peg thought this was a book that really lends itself to discussion. In fact, another book club that she belongs to discussed it just a few weeks ago. She took notes during that discussion, so she got a lot of mileage out of it. She loved the book but admitted that parts of it were tedious. Out of curiosity, Peg questioned whether we rely on the library to get the books we read? Some do, others don't. Sue gets a lot of ebooks from the library, but the one up in New York state. Peg said she and Joan were disappointed when Alachua County no longer allowed non-residents to use their library system. Betty used their system too, and shared their disappointment. They had the best inventory, were completely reciprocal with other counties in Florida. The way she reads, she couldn't possibly afford to buy books, even eBooks. She also sends out all the $1.99 eBook specials, making the books we'll be reading much more affordable. Everyone chimed in that we really appreciate that. Sue figures that whatever she saves on those, she can donate to the club's Books for Children fund.

Speaking of books, we wondered what our January book is. It's My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman, the same author who wrote A Man Called Ove. Those who have already read it agreed that it was a good book and had a lot of meat to the story, making it good for discussion. Other upcoming books were read. The book for June, Clara and Mr. Tiffany might be a little hard to get into because of the language, but it's worth the read. Someone questioned whether that book had been picked? It turned out that Jazz was supposed to be the next book on the list, so Jazz will be automatically added to the books for 2022.

In conclusion, Sunny read Orlean's description of Harry Peak, the one suspected of starting the fire at the library. Mary Jo questioned whether we thought that Harry Peak actually started the fire. We seemed to be split on that. Some thought he was, but others thought there were so many ways the fire could have started. We'll never know.

Peg thanked Sunny for a good discussion and wished us a Happy Thanksgiving. Waves from everyone as we closed the session. Next month, we'll have our annual Morning with Local Authors.  Stay well, all.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

It’s the morning of April 29, 1986 and a fire alarm is going off in the LA Public Library. Seven hours later, 400,000 books have been destroyed and almost twice that number have been damaged. Thirty years later the mystery is still unsolved: was the fire set on purpose and if so, by whom? The book underscores the important roles of library in our lives. Based on an actual event.

See you next month (even if it's just through Zoom), and keep on reading....

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