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Susan Orlean on the crazy things people ask a librarian, from ‘The Library Book’

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“The Library Book” by Susan Orlean is set at L.A.'s landmark Central Library downtown.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Times Book Club is reading “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean. Here’s an excerpt.

The opposite of a sensory-deprivation tank might be to spend a Monday morning in the library’s InfoNow Department. The phone rings with that weird blooping electronic tone all day long, and the staff of five reference librarians answer, ping-ponging from topic to topic so widely that just sitting among them and listening makes your brain feel rubbery.

“Monday mornings are busy,” said Rolando Pasquinelli, the supervisor of the department. “Excuse me, hang on.” He pushed a button on his phone and said, “Hello, InfoNow, can I help you?”

“I wanted to be a librarian since I was five years old,” said one of the staff librarians, Tina Princenthal. “Hang on. InfoNow, can I help? Okay, okay … Did you say ‘What’s a cabana boy?’ ”

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Why would someone call here and ask, ‘Which is more evil, grasshoppers or crickets?
From ‘The Library Book’ by Susan Orlean

“We get a lot of repeat callers,” said David Brenner, who was at the desk next to Princenthal’s. “We have an older gentleman who calls regularly with questions about mythology, science fiction, World War I, that sort of thing. He also always asks about a few actresses and celebrities, asking me if I know what’s going on with them. Actually, he asks about Juliette Lewis and the women in Pussy Riot.”

The librarian beside Brenner, Harry Noles, said, “Oh, and there’s that guy who calls every few months to get updates on Dana Delany, the actress from that show China Beach.”

Princenthal hung up her phone and wrote something down. “Sometimes I’m amazed by what people call about,” she said, tapping her desk with a pencil. “Once, a patron called to ask if it was okay for her to eat a can of beans that didn’t have an expiration date. I mean, there is a website called Still Tasty that I use to check expiration dates on things, but I’m not going to take responsibility for a lady eating a can of beans!”

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I said they all seemed to know a lot.

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“I tried out for Jeopardy!,” Brenner said.

“I tried out and passed the test,” Noles said.

“It was my first week of work!” Princenthal went on, still thinking about beans. “I told her what the average shelf life of beans was, but I’m hoping she didn’t eat them.”

“Yes, all branches are open today,” Brenner said into his phone. “Hello, yes, library cards expire every three years,” Noles said into his phone, teasing the curly phone cord and letting it snap back.

“Last week a lady called and asked me how to sign a card for a baby shower,” Princenthal said. “I mean, that’s not exactly something to look up. I just said, ‘How about … “Best wishes”? Or … “Congratulations”?’ Just off the top of my head. I didn’t consult any source. She seemed happy with that answer.” She then added, “There are a lot of lonely people out there.”

“We handle things in the department if possible,” Pasquinelli said. He has been a librarian at Central for thirty-five years. His desk was a medium-size mountain range of papers and books and files and booklets. “We will refer things along if we have to. If someone calls and says, ‘I want to know when Marilyn Monroe died,’ we can do that here in the department, boom! But if they ask whether her death was a suicide, we send them to the Literature Department.”

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Princenthal hung up her phone and shook her head. “Why would someone call here and ask, ‘Which is more evil, grasshoppers or crickets?’ ” she said to no one in particular. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

The phones stopped for a moment. The air vibrated. The phones started again.

“InfoNow … sure … okay, so I assume it’s a British book?” Princenthal said. “Oh, the hockey team Kings. Not British kings.” She typed something into her computer. “Yes, several books in Sports. That’s in Art and Recreation.”

“I swear some people have us on speed dial,” Brenner said, hanging up his call. “This woman — we call her ‘Fur’ — she calls for spelling and grammar help all the time. She says she’s a poet. Sometimes she will call twenty-five times in an hour with editing questions.”

“Not everyone has the Internet or knows how to use it,” Noles said. “Hello, InfoNow?” Pause. “Say the title again? Life-Changing Magic of Cleaning Up? Oh, Tidying Up. I’ll check. Just a moment.”

“You’re getting an error message on your e-media download?” Paquinelli asked into his phone. “Hold on a moment.”

“We get a lot of obituary questions,” Noles said to me, “and a lot of etiquette questions. And actually, a lot of etiquette-in-obituaries questions. Hello, InfoNow, can I help you … Uh-huh. Sure. Can you spell that? C-e-l-e-s-t-e, last name the letter N, the letter G? Just N-g? Okay, just a moment.”

“Are you saying Dylan is the author’s first name or last name?” Brenner said, looking at his computer screen. “Okay, great. Just a moment, I’ll get that for you.”

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“My friends think because I’m a librarian, I know everything,” Princenthal said to me. “We’ll be watching the Olympics, and suddenly, they’ll say, ‘Tina, how do they score snowboarding at the Olympics?’ Or out of the blue, ‘Tina, how long do parrots live?’”

“Is the name of the book The New Owner’s Guide to Maltese?” Noles asked, leaning toward his computer screen. He listened to the caller for a minute. “So are you saying you are a new owner looking for a guide to Maltese dogs?” Pause. With the phone tucked under his chin, he typed a few words. He read what popped up on his screen and smiled. “Okay, you’re in luck,” he told the caller. “We have both.”

Excerpted from “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean. Copyright 2018 by Susan Orlean. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster Inc., N.Y.

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Los Angeles Times Book Club welcomes Susan Orlean

Where: Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles.

When: 7:30 p.m. June 25. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets: $10-$75

Info: latimes.com/bookclub


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