Seattle literary luminary Nancy Pearl looks back on a life of books

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“I’ve never been able to figure out how to describe myself, but I think the word ‘literary’ is very close, right? Nancy Pearl asked, over the phone for an interview last month. She talks about the last honor to come: the literary award for outstanding service to the American literary community, being presented to him by the National Book Foundation on November 17 in New York, as part of the National Book Awards. She likes both the word – “literary”, which comes out of the language so well – and honor. “It’s like a validation of my life, actually,” she said.

Pearl, who has lived in Seattle since 1993, has spent her life 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 the library Seattle Public), non-fiction author (her “Book Lust” series offers reading recommendations), novelist (2017 “George & Lizzie”), book reviewer and unexpected literary celebrity. (Yes, the Nancy Pearl Librarian action figure, with removable red cape, is still available at Archie McPhee.) His love for books dates back to childhood, when libraries were a safe haven.

Even though Pearl says she can’t remember exactly when or how she learned to read, she still has vivid memories of her childhood libraries when she grew 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, the Librarian Miss Glen introduced him 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 mainly read “books about horses and dogs”; Miss Whitehead opened up this world by 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 where I felt like I belonged,” Pearl said. At the age of 10, Pearl wanted to be a children’s librarian, wanting to do for other children what Miss Whitehead had done for her.


Pearl became a children’s librarian in Detroit after graduating from the University of Michigan Library School. But his 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 program If All Seattle Read the Same Book (“Can you imagine a more awkward title? Seattle Readings.

“One thing I brought was this belief that book discussion groups, especially 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 kind of understanding of what reading can do to bring people together, ”said Pearl, of the development of the program. Along with others, she devised a format that involved public discussions about books, “because I’ve always thought it’s easier to talk about difficult things if you’re doing it in the context of a book than you’ve read, especially a piece 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 “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett, “There There” by Tommy Orange and “The Best We could Do” by Thi Bui.

Although Pearl does not belong to a formal book club, she started a “walk-in book group” a few years ago at a cafe near her North Seattle neighborhood, just an opportunity to make a statement. round the table and share with people what they were reading. It now meets regularly on Zoom. But she’s often asked for advice on how to keep a club healthy and happy – and as you can imagine, she has a few tips to share.

“I think one of the important things about book groups is that a lot of times people think it’s not a success unless everyone likes the book, so you have to be careful about choosing a book that everybody Loves. But the best discussions come when some people don’t like the book, ”Pearl said. “I encourage people to take their chances by choosing books that some people might not like or not finish. I think it’s the discussion that follows that is the important thing.

It’s also important, she says, not to start the group meeting by asking everyone what they think of the book. “For me, it’s just a way to kill the discussion before it even starts. If you do that, then after that night you’re split into who liked and who didn’t, and every discussion, every answer to a question is phrased in those terms. She suggests starting with a neutral question, such as what the title means, or why the author chose to write the book the way he did. “Starting with a question like that and leaving the whole question of who liked it and who didn’t like it until the end, gives people a chance to marinate and grow.”

Books have been a comfort throughout Pearl’s life, but especially during the pandemic. While she is considering some writing projects, especially a possible sequel to “George & Lizzie” (a minor character from the book “is in my head, and I continue to write and rewrite what I think is the first sentence of the book “), reading fiction has been his escape route in difficult times. She rereads her favorite books, like Jane Haddam’s mystery series or Georgette Heyer’s novels, on audio books during her daily walks. “I just wanted stuff that was, I guess, heartwarming or familiar,” she said. “We are moving into such an unfamiliar and scary place, and I think a lot of people are coming back to what made them feel good.”

That’s not to say that she isn’t constantly trying new books, because she is – although following the Nancy Pearl Rule of 50. (If you’re not familiar: Readers under 50 should 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, doesn’t have to read very far to satisfy her own rule, but sometimes she reads even fewer pages before putting down a book and trying out another.

“It’s so funny that people think this rule is set in stone – actually, it was just an idea that came to me,” she said. “At this point in my life, I stop at two sentences in a book, if there is something about those sentences that doesn’t appeal to me or that I find boring. … You really have to go through at least 10 books before you find one that really captivates you.

For a writer, there is always another book waiting.


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