L.A. Central Library's summer state of mind

This has been the summer of staying home, with nothing much to do.

I used to look forward to family vacations with my daughters, whether we were schlepping to Ohio to visit relatives or lounging on a beach in Jamaica.


But the daughters are grown, with full-time jobs and schedules that don't mesh. And I'm pinching pennies until I pay off my new kitchen cabinets.

That's why I've been spending evenings at the downtown library, where the Library Foundation of Los Angeles hosts a free summer series of author chats, performance art and public forums on science, history, social and cultural issues.

The ALOUD series began more than 20 years ago, when the Central Library reopened after a devastating fire that destroyed nearly 400,000 books and shuttered the building for years.

The program was a way for the library to reclaim its role as a city treasure and rebuild bonds to a community that donated millions of dollars to save and restore fire-damaged books.

It was something the city couldn't afford to do on its own, said Louise Steinman, the director of cultural programs for the library foundation, which raised more than $3 million last year to support library programs.

"No one knew exactly what the programs would be like," said Steinman, who has curated the series since it began in 1993. "I imagined bringing together artists and scientists and humanists and educators … and an engaged local audience that would have exposure to great thinkers in all disciplines."

I wasn't thinking in such highfalutin terms when I signed up online to attend my first ALOUD session last month. I just wanted to hear two authors whose work I enjoy talk about a subject that I find eternally intriguing: Novelists Mona Simpson and Michelle Huneven on the "tangled and complex morality" of love.


I expected a public therapy session, ripe with intimate disclosures. Instead, it was more cerebral and less spontaneous, expertly moderated by British psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, who guided the novelists through a conversational pas de deux.

But this was the library, after all, not the Dr. Phil show. So they talked about the beauty of being "known" in love, instead of just praised or adored, and the linguistic role of the phrase "making love" when you're writing about having sex.

Almost 250 people turned out; they filled every seat in the library's Mark Taper Auditorium. Many were library foundation donors, who come often and every summer. But others had never been to the downtown library before.

"I'm embarrassed to admit that," one woman told me, as we traipsed through the parking garage together, looking for our cars. She lived in Santa Monica and rarely ventured to downtown Los Angeles after dark. She'd come for the authors and left with a new appreciation for the elegance of the Central Library and the vitality of downtown.

She was struck, as I was, by how friendly everyone seemed; our shared literary taste seemed to promote instant camaraderie.

ALOUD's associate director Maureen Moore wasn't surprised when I shared that assessment.


"I think there's a hunger in this time of being on computers and in virtual reality … to be in your body, in a physical space with other people, finding common ground," Moore said.


In a city not known for its literary prowess, the ALOUD summer program has shown remarkable staying power.

"It's been interesting to watch the community evolve," Steinman said. "People want to come here now because it has a certain stature."

There aren't many places where people can practice agreeing, or disagreeing, on subjects that might be incendiary in a different venue, Steinman said.

The questions have become more sophisticated over time, and the audience has become more eclectic as downtown has changed, she said. "We get people who work in downtown high-rises and homeless people who live nearby. We want everyone to feel welcome, and I think they respect that."

I could sense that zeitgeist at a session this month on the "astonishing connection between human and animal health," featuring two scientists and a cardiologist who had written books on the subject.

Some questions took on a polemical tone — "Are you for or against zoos?" — but most people in the crowd were less interested in staking out turf than in learning about the research, the findings and the authors' feelings about what they learned.

Listening to their questions made me feel appreciated as a writer and not so all alone. I'm part of a tribe, and the library is the place that we can always consider home.

So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by the young man who called out to me as I made my way through the library garden and toward the garage, scribbling notes as I walked.

"Excuse me, Miss," he said. He wore sagging pants and his hair was a mess. He was fishing through his backpack. I was prepared to hand him a few dollars, then I heard his request: "Could you spare a slice of paper?"

His homeboys nearby laughed. "Man, you're always writing something down."

"That's how I know what I'm thinking," he told them, and looked back at me. I ripped out the pages I needed and handed my notebook to him.

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT