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Writer Susan Orlean's dilemma: to burn a book or not?




Susan Orlean  in the atrium at the L.A. Central Library.
Susan Orlean in the atrium at the L.A. Central Library.
Todd Johnson/KPCC

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This week, the reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction in the fire at a massive downtown L.A. construction complex jumped to $170,000. 

Sadly, this was not the first time a deliberately-set fire hit the region. Back in 1986, arson hit the Central Library on Flower Street,  destroying 20 percent of the library's holdings.

But who would want to burn so many books? Who would want to burn any book for that matter? And what does it feel like when you do? 

Those are some of the questions writer Susan Orlean has been grappling with lately as she does research for her upcoming book about the fire at the Central Library, aptly titled "The Library Book."

Orlean is kind of author who goes in pretty deep with her topics (she trekked through the swamps of Florida to research her book "The Orchid Thief"), so she thought at some point she might have to burn a book herself. But it still it wasn't an easy decision to make. 

"Destroying a book...there's something emotional about it. I don't think it's only because I'm a writer. I think books feel like they have some animate quality that makes it uncomfortable to throw them out. So the idea of setting one on fire was just crazy," Orlean says.

But then the idea started to nag at her and she decided to do it. The next big decision was which book to burn.

Orlean considered burning one of her own books or a book she didn't like, but it all felt wrong. Finally, her husband offered an idea: "Farenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury.

"It was just obvious instantly that that was the book," Orlean says.

Not only did Bradbury write part of the book at the Central Library, Orlean says, but the book itself is about "the idea that burning books was a way of erasing civilization."

As the book went up in flames, Orleans says she thought, "somewhere in heaven Ray Bradbury is smiling down on this."

But she doesn't recommend others try it.

"This was strictly research. And if you have extra books that you don't want anymore, I highly recommend donating them instead of burning them."

You could even donate them to your local public library.