160. Narratives, Libraries

I’ve been trying out Audible for the last year, and I have mixed feelings about it for my own experience as a reader. I don’t focus as easily, or retain as much. Plus the ones read by people with American accents make me drowsy. So much to unpack there, hah.

Anyway, as far as zipping through book club selections, Audible is pretty helpful, plus I don’t have to wait endlessly for library copies if I procrastinated, nor do I end up owning a stack of books I might never read again and must now find space for. These days the only physical books I like bringing home are by Singaporean and other Southeast Asian writers. We just don’t have room for more collections, intent as we are on decluttering, after years of intense focus on autism, not that that focus is changing any time soon.

I missed attending a book club gathering where everyone discussed Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book,” but am listening to it over these holidays. I. Do. Not. Love. This. Book. Well researched it certainly is, and a paean to public libraries it should forever be remembered as being, but every chapter has me raising an eyebrow in one way or another. I’m not done reading yet, let’s be clear, but it’s my blog, and I can review half a book from a sideways angle if I want to..

If you haven’t already read it, the book is about the 1986 fire that devastated the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. We are treated to part forensic investigation, part biographical histories of the people who devoted their lives to creating the infrastructure of libraries in the Wild West atmosphere that was California back in the day, and part glorious love song to the role that libraries have come to play in American society, much of that by design. Anyone who cherishes the idea of equal access to knowledge and safe public spaces will enjoy the book for these reasons.

I found much of the property damage tallying to be stultifying, and it reminded me of the first chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. Who stood where on the battlefield, who was the son of whom. General So and So, Commander Someone. KRISHNA HALP. But most of the storytelling was amazing; loved the parts where regular people come to trust the library as a place for learning, where an autistic guy is trusted to document the extensive map collection, where people leave notes inside the pages of books to find one another, like a bygone era Craigslist, and so much more.

Where I part company with those who may more wholeheartedly endorse Orlean’s book is in how she writes about the guy who is the main suspect for the arson–Harry Peak. It’s never been proven that he did it. But we get some glimpses and interviews that show us why he was so closely scrutinized. I am extremely creeped out by what a pass he gets. In an age when we have clear documentation that black people can be shot and killed with impunity by police just for walking outside or being in their own homes, and where immigrants never stop having to prove that we live in America, and that our turbans and hijabs and saris are not hiding the apocalyptic horsemen, Harry Peak can be a suspect for ages, but untouched by the law because hey, there isn’t enough proof. He can be a lone weirdo who even slightly sort of pretty much confesses to starting the fire, but he was gay, and he didn’t fit into Hollywood, poor guy, so let’s write him as someone who fits into the history of crazy renegade Californians who make us all feel more interesting.

I’ve been outraged even by the book’s accounts of long dead guys who built the LA library system. A guy who got a very effective female head of the library drummed out because she wouldn’t respond favorably to his sexual advances; a much less stable and deeply unappealing man replacing a capable woman just because it was time to make the library profession sexy to men. The same guy making colossal errors of judgment, but being written in this book with affection, and a deep wish to find the good in his legacy. Because Renegade California, and the white male heroes who built infrastructure with such raffish appeal! Such appalling sounding fashion sense!

Back to Harry Peak. I am not letting this go. A guy matching his description was found loitering at least four times in staff-only areas of the library, perhaps casing the joint for the best place to start the fire. Not once was security called; not one employee thought to call the police. I should like to see someone who looks like my uncle Satyanarayana wander even accidentally into a restricted area of a public building in this country, and be given the same slack ass consideration.

You are probably wondering by now why I am blogging about this on Autism Duniya. Well, if you think it’s because I am thinking of how unexamined privilege works, you would be right. I want us all to sit with why we accept certain narratives without question. Why a mainstream author did not question the way history is told. Why, even though public institutions are deemed a universal good, we rarely see minority community members sit on their boards. Why libraries are not more autism friendly, especially as our children age out of story hour, and petting the local therapy dog. Why, when towns and institutions talk about celebrating diversity, including neurodiversity, it is usually through the gaze of the majority. Why mainstream altruism is still treated as the only valid force for development.

I attended a talk recently, where a public official exhorted us all to volunteer in the community, because that’s the best way to have the ear of our elected representatives, otherwise they won’t know what our needs are. Stuff like this is why I check out so deeply from public life; this ability to overlook how some of us will never have an equal shot at such access; how many autism families cannot breach the barriers to community engagement; how, because of how non-inclusive our communities are, we cannot often bring our children into civic life. And how, since we make so many things happen for our families despite societal indifference and avoidance of disability, we prefer not to be lectured, or have anecdotal ‘data’ masked as expertise constantly presented to us as if it were a thoughtful gift.

As the year ends, I want to thank my readers. As always, your willingness to grapple with difficult aspects of autism is important. I am not interested in Pollyanna-esque, treacly visions of how special we all are as autism families, and have worked hard to say things that are truthful, and which affect my family viscerally.

A very dear old friend told me recently that she has her children read my work, and that she has been changed by reading–becoming less judgmental of possible autism behaviors in public; not rushing to say stuff like Why should my kids be inconvenienced by your kid’s high needs; and also being able to admit that she doesn’t know how to be a better ally.

I found her words very profoundly moving, and have been turning them over in my mind. Sometimes I kick myself for not being able to move more mountains for my kids. But my friend’s thoughts made me see that the journey of autism discovery for the abled is just as significant, and takes time too. And humility like hers is the hidden gem.

Wishing you an Inclusive and Neurodiverse 2020.



Orlean, Susan. The Library Book. Narrated by Susan Orlean. Audible, 2018. Audiobook.





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