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Susan Orlean talks ‘The Library Book’ on first day of L.A. Times Festival of Books

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Book lovers at the annual L.A. Times Festival of Books at USC on Saturday.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Susan Orlean cracked open her book and bent toward the microphone.

“Covers burst like popcorn,” she said, reading from her book about the mysterious 1986 fire at downtown L.A.’s Central Library. “Pages flared and blackened and then sprang away from their bindings, a ream of sooty scraps soaring on the updraft.”

The New Yorker staff writer and author, a headliner at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, read from her latest book during a public discussion on the first day of the event.

The two-day festival — the largest of its kind in the country — includes panels and discussions on a wide range of topics, including Shakespeare, Chernobyl, rape culture and guns in America. The event, now in its 24th year, also had food trucks, an a cappella performance, a puppet performance and cooking demonstrations.

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Other authors participating in the event, which is expected to draw 150,000 people to USC’s campus over the weekend, include Roxane Gay, Sandra Cisneros, T.C. Boyle and former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett.

On Saturday, Elena G. Ter-Petrosyan — who has attended the festival in past years with her dad and brother — stumbled upon the International Printing Museum booth. The 17-year-old with a Penguin Classics tote bag in hand made a bookmark with a quote from Dr. Seuss, one of her favorite childhood authors.

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” it read.

“This Festival of Books,” she said, “is a meeting for all unique people.”

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LOS ANGELES, CA-SEPTEMBER 13, 2018: Susan Orlean, who has an upcoming book about the LA Public Libr
Author Susan Orlean’s latest work, “The Library Book,” is about the 1986 fire a Central Library in downtown L.A.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

At the beginning of the Orlean event Saturday morning, a festival volunteer asked the audience to look up at ten hulking chandeliers. In case of an earthquake, the volunteer said, the crowd should follow the typical routine.

The Times’ deputy managing editor for arts and entertainment, Julia Turner, told the volunteer that neither she nor Orlean grew up in L.A. What was the routine, she asked?

“You go under the table,” the volunteer said, eliciting laughs from the crowd.

Orlean started the event by summarizing the fire that inspired her book.

It was April 29, 1986, she said, an otherwise unremarkable day at the library when flames chewed through the fiction stacks. It reached 2,500 degrees, melting steel shelves and destroying all fiction books by authors whose last names begin with letters A through L. Among those destroyed, Orlean said, were books by Ray Bradbury.

“I think all of us would understand the irony of that,” she said.

Orlean told the crowd that after finishing “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” she didn’t want to write another book. The idea of chronicling a library came to her mind — it would be a good book, she thought, for someone else to write. Then she visited the Central Library in downtown L.A.

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“I was completely enchanted,” she said. “Charmed.”

While inside, her tour guide picked up a book and took a long whiff, telling her he could still smell the smoke.

From cigarettes, she asked?

No, he told her, from the fire in 1986.

“At that point it was inescapable,” she said. “This is just a book I have to do.”

Later in the day, a crowd gathered across campus for a discussion about the state of news — and the Los Angeles Times — between The Times’ owner, Patrick Soon-Shiong, and its executive editor, Norman Pearlstine.

Soon-Shiong told the crowd that he bought the newspaper last year, because he had begun “to see the deterioration of the paper” and considered it unfathomable for Los Angeles not to have a thriving paper. The crowd interrupted in applause.

“I feel like I’m running for office here,” Soon-Shiong said.

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“You may be by the end of this,” Pearlstine quipped.

Soon-Shiong — a doctor and biotech billionaire — said as a physician the only interest he considers is that of the patient. Similarly, The Times should consider the interest of readers not advertisers, Soon-Shiong said, adding that he believes it’s the newspaper’s obligation to cover local news that engages the public.

“This is not a pitch to subscribe,” he said, pausing. “But this is a pitch.”

At another event nearby, David Shannon — author of the children’s book “No, David!” — stood next to a canvas, marker in hand, asking his young readers to help him draw what David would look like as a grown-up.

“Drinking coffee!”

“With a doughnut!”

“The doughnut should be bitten!”

Together, Shannon and the children crowded at the front of the stage brought grown-up David to life — a happy-go-lucky policeman drinking coffee and munching doughnuts.

Shannon said he got the idea for “No, David!” when he was five years old. As a little kid, he drew pictures of himself doing things he shouldn’t be doing with the words, “No, David!”

“Those were the only words I knew,” Shannon said. “Does anyone here know more than two words?”

Eager hands shot up in the air.

“Then you can write a book too!” he said.


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