“I’ve never been able to figure out how to describe myself, but I think ‘literarian’ comes very close, doesn’t it?” asked Nancy Pearl, on the telephone for an interview last month. She’s speaking of the latest honor to come her way: the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, being presented to her by the National Book Foundation on Nov. 17 in New York, as part of the National Book Awards. She loves both the word — “literarian,” flowing so nicely off the tongue — and the honor. “It feels like a validation of my life, actually,” she said.
Pearl, who’s lived in Seattle since 1993, has spent a lifetime immersed in reading and writing: as a librarian (in Detroit, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Seattle, where she was executive director of the Washington Center for the Book at Seattle Public Library), nonfiction author (her “Book Lust” series offers reading recommendations), novelist (2017’s “George & Lizzie”), book critic and unexpected literary celebrity. (Yes, the Nancy Pearl Librarian Action Figure, complete with detachable red cape, is still available at Archie McPhee.) Her love for books dates back to childhood, where libraries were a haven.
Though Pearl says she doesn’t remember exactly when and how she learned to read, she has vivid memories of her childhood libraries while growing up in Detroit. (Side note: If you’ve heard Pearl’s voice on the radio, you might agree with me that she has a vocal twin — fellow Detroit native Lily Tomlin.) At her elementary school library, librarian Miss Glen introduced her to “My Father’s Dragon” by Ruth Stiles Gannett and the “Lad: A Dog” stories; and at the public library, Miss Whitehead “was really the librarian who made me.” At age 8, Pearl said she was mostly reading “horse and dog books”; Miss Whitehead opened up that world, introducing her to British children’s literature — “The Hobbit,” the “Mary Poppins” series and many more.
“I didn’t grow up in a very happy family, and the library was the place where I just felt like I belonged,” Pearl said. By the age of 10, Pearl wanted to become a children’s librarian, wanting to do for other kids what Miss Whitehead had done for her.
Pearl did indeed become a children’s librarian in Detroit, after graduating from the University of Michigan’s library school. But her career quickly came to encompass books for all ages. In Seattle, where she worked for SPL for 11 years before her retirement, she founded the If All Seattle Read the Same Book program (“Can you imagine a clunkier title?” she said, laughing) in 1998, now still going strong under the much tidier name of Seattle Reads.
“One thing that I did bring was this belief that book discussion groups, particularly book discussion groups that bring together people who meet in public places like the library, are so valuable in developing a kind of empathy and a kind of understanding of what reading can do to bring people together,” Pearl said, of the development of the program. With others, she crafted a format that involved public discussions of books, “because I’ve always felt that it’s easier to talk about difficult things if you do it in the context of a book that you’ve read, particularly a work of fiction.” She chose Russell Banks’ “The Sweet Hereafter” for the inaugural book (“It’s the kind of book that when you finish it, you just want to talk about it”); recent selections have included Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half,” Tommy Orange’s “There There” and Thi Bui’s “The Best We Could Do.”
Though Pearl doesn’t belong to a formal book club, she did start a “drop-in book group” a few years ago at a cafe near her North Seattle neighborhood, just an opportunity to go around the table and have people share what they were reading. It’s now meeting regularly on Zoom. But she’s often asked for tips on how to keep a club healthy and happy — and as you can imagine, she’s got some advice to share.
“I think one of the important things about book groups is that often people think that it isn’t successful unless everybody likes the book, so you have to be careful to choose a book that everybody likes. But the best discussions arise when some people don’t like the book,” Pearl said. “I encourage people to take chances on picking books that some people might not enjoy, or might not finish. I think it’s the discussion arising out of it that’s the important thing.”
It’s also important, she says, not to start out the group meeting by asking everyone what they thought of the book. “To me, that is just a way to kill discussion before it even begins. If you do that, then ever afterwards in that evening you’re divided into who liked it and who didn’t, and every discussion, every response to a question is couched in those terms.” She suggests starting with a neutral question, like what the title means, or why the author chose to write the book the way they did. “Starting with a question like that and leaving the whole question of who liked this and who didn’t until the end, gives people’s feelings about the books a chance to kind of marinate and grow.”
Books have been a comfort throughout Pearl’s life, but especially so during the pandemic. Though she’s mulling writing projects, particularly a possible follow-up to “George & Lizzie” (a minor character from the book “is in my mind, and I keep writing and rewriting what I think would be the first sentence in the book”), reading fiction has been her escape in a difficult time. She’s been rereading favorite books, like the Jane Haddam mystery series or Georgette Heyer’s novels, on audiobooks on her daily walks. “I just wanted stuff that was, I guess, comforting or familiar,” she said. “We’re moving into such an unfamiliar scary place, and I think a lot of people are going back to what made them feel good.”
That’s not to say she’s not constantly trying out new books, because she is — though following the Nancy Pearl Rule of 50. (If you’re not familiar: Readers under age 50 need to read the first 50 pages of a book before giving it up; those over 50 can subtract their age from 100 and read that number of pages.) Pearl, now in her 70s, isn’t required to read very far to satisfy her own rule — but sometimes she reads even fewer pages before putting a book down and trying another.
“It’s so funny that people think that rule is engraved in stone — really it was just an idea that came to me,” she said. “At this point in my life, I’m stopping at two sentences in a book, if there’s something about those sentences that doesn’t draw me in or that I find annoying. … You really have to go through at least 10 books before you find one that really grabs you.”
For a literarian, there’s always another book waiting.