Nancy Pearl

STEVE THOMAS: This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Steve Thomas. My guest this episode does not require too much of an introduction. It’s Ms. Nancy Pearl, librarian extraordinaire. She’s the author of the Book Lust series, she’s a regular NPR and Publisher’s Weekly contributor, and of course, the model for the librarian action figure. Nancy was nice enough to speak with me at the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago in the summer of 2013. This interview was partially made possible by my successful Kickstarter campaign so thank you to everyone who contributed, and I hope you enjoy the interview.

Settle a dispute: where does the apostrophe go in “readers’ advisory”?

NANCY PEARL: You know, that’s a very good question, and I have no idea. I’m gonna assume, what I generally do, is “readers-apostrophe-advisory” because I think you’re talking about the group of readers but if you’re talking about an individual reader, then it goes before the “s”.

ST: That’s always my thing, too. I’d rather just say “RA”.

NP: Yes, exactly! And that does it, right? That dispenses with that particular issue. Right.

ST: So one of the many things you’re known for are the Book Lust books and the brand in general. Why did you choose “lust” in particular?

NP: Well, I cannot take credit for that. My publisher, Sasquatch Books, of those early four Book Lust books – three Book Lust books, one Book Crush book – was the person who came up with Book Lust. And it’s interesting, when he presented it to the company that distributed the books, everybody said, “Not a good title, not a good title, not a good title.” I was so pleased that Gary just stood firm and said, “This is the title we love, this is what we want to go with.” The sad thing is, I think, the second book… we did Book Lust, and I was working on a second book and I said, “Gary, couldn’t we call this one, ‘Book Lust 2: the Morning After’?”, which would’ve been so wonderful. And they just sort of flinched at that and so in the end, it was called, very boringly, More Book Lust. And I always say, you know, if people want Gary’s email address, I’ll be happy to send it because I would love to have it redone as “Book Lust 2: the Morning After.” It would’ve sold a lot more copies.

ST: Just reissue it with a new title…

NP: Yes, yes, or do what they call a belly band around the old title.

ST: So, are you working on another one? Will there be a fifth one?

NP: I don’t think… there won’t be a fifth one. What I’m working on now is a novel. And I do my book recommendations now, pretty much via Twitter. So if people wanted to see what I’m recommending, what I’m reading, in again all the different genres, it’s just @Nancy_Pearl.

ST: What book have you re-read the most?

NP: Oh, good question. I’ve re-read the Agatha Christie books so often you would think I would always know who the murderer is, but Agatha Christie is such a good storytime, she’s so good with her plots and red herrings that I always forget, so I do read those over and over again. Because I lead many book discussions, and I always try to choose for those book discussions really discussable books that I know there’s not going to be awkward pauses, that there’s really going to be something to say about the content. There are a couple of books that I do and I re-read those before all of those discussions. One is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, a good Ohio author. Another is In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien, which is fabulous, a great great book for discussion because of the ambiguous ending.  And the third is Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner which, when we were planning to do our very first “If All Seattle Read the Same Book”, I went around and talked to a lot of people about what book, who would they like us to bring and what book should we read by that author, and the majority of people said Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose and then I had to break the news that he had died several years before so we were not going to do that book but it’s a fabulous book for discussion.

ST: Are you a fast… I assume you’re a fast reader, based on how many books you read?

NP: Well, I am a fast reader unless I’m reading a book in which language is the primary what I call “doorway”, the primary entrance into the book, and then I’m a slow reader, partly because I’m copying down sentences and I’m thinking about the wonderful way that the author put words together, I’m just in awe. But I think more importantly, and the reason I can read so many books is that I never finish a book that I’m not liking, so the only books that I finish and the only books I talk about are books that I love and really that is so freeing and I do that always with the proviso in mind that I can go back and try that book again at any time. That’s the joy of doing that. If someone says, “Oh, I loved this book!” and it was one I didn’t particularly like, but probably should’ve liked, based on everything I know about myself as a reader then I’ll go back and try that book again and sometimes a third time, it took me three times to get through Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin because the first two times, I just was not in the right place in my head for that book. And then the third time it all clicked and I was off to the races, so to speak.

ST: Yeah, I was going to ask about that, that’s your, what, “50 Page Rule”?

NP: It’s my 50 page rule, which I had to amend because when you’re over 50, time gets really short and the world of books continues to enlarge geometrically, it seems. And so, if you’re over 50, if you’re 51 and up, subtract your age from 100 and that’s the amount of pages that you should read and of course then it gets smaller every year which is a reward to getting older, one of the few rewards, I might say. [laughs]

ST: Do you keep those books in a special place, like the ones where you only got to 50, like in your house, do you put them in a special shelf?

NP: I normally do, if I have the book. I don’t put them in a special shelf, but I know what they are. I keep my books… I do not have a huge library of books that I keep, but I keep them in a special, I keep them in a kind of loose alphabetical order that would drive a shelver crazy, like all the M’s spread over four shelves, no discernible order.

ST: Well, as long as you can figure it out, right?

NP: Or I take a lot of time searching for this particular book. “I know it’s here somewhere!”

ST: Do you have a way that you keep track of your reading, or do you just keep it all in your head?

NP: The way I keep track of it these days is… I always used to keep track of it just in my head, or when I was working on a Book Lust book, I would keep it under different categories. The way I keep track of it now is really through Twitter and Facebook. And so, I can look back over my Twitter feeds, and see the books that I’ve really liked over the last whatever number… you know, if I’m asked to come to a library and do a talk about good books to read… When somebody says, “What are you reading?” and it’s really still just this panicky reaction, I can’t remember anything that I’m reading, so knowing that I can go back to Twitter and see them all there is a great comfort to me.

ST: Have you ever tried Goodreads or one of those other kinds of sites before?

NP: I do, I belong to Goodreads. I’m always getting notices that someone is my friend on Goodreads. And I think that some years ago that somebody did it so that my tweets show up on Goodreads, but I don’t, unfortunately, just have not found the time to do anything big with Goodreads.

ST: Do you think libraries have shifted so far in the direction of trying these new makerspaces and technology petting zoos, all that kind of stuff, that they’ve veered away too much from the importance of books and reading? I mean, all those things are important to try, but do you think they’ve veered away too much?

NP: I’m afraid that I’m going to sound like an old fogey when I answer this. I think that library services consist of… it’s like a three-legged stool, and one of the legs of those stools is providing information. Another leg is programming and outreach. And the third leg is reading. And if one of those legs is longer than the other or shorter, you know, significantly shorter, then that stool is going to be really tippy. I worry that we are trying to be everything to everybody and you know, the thing that we do that nobody else does, is give those three values, those three valuable things, to the community, that we are a place where you can get a good book to read, we are a place that can help you figure out what the address of the IRS is, we are the place where you can come hear a program. To add… you know, in many ways, we’ve become, many urban libraries have become a day shelter for the homeless, that’s something that I fault the city governments for, because that is their responsibility, that should not be the library’s responsibility. And all of these makerspaces, etc…. why are we now becoming a recreation center? To me, it seems like a really obvious example of mission creep. It’s, like, almost that we feel desperate that we have to prove ourselves, and yet, our mission and our function is so central to a democratic society… I don’t understand quite why we’re having to spread our tentacles into other things.

ST: Right. In general, I read that you don’t like meeting authors because then you get their voice in your head and you can’t hear the narrator’s, but are there any authors in particular that you did enjoy meeting?

NP: Absolutely. John Scalzi. I had loved Old Man’s War, his first novel, and then I got to have lunch with him with some booksellers. And I just thought he was just fabulous, very funny, very personable, very unpretentious, all those things that mean a lot to me, and as soon as he left, as soon as the lunch was over, I went back to the bookstore, the university bookstore in Seattle and bought copies of all his books and am just delighted with them. I love them. I re-read Old Man’s War and then in no particular order read everything else, so he is certainly one author that I absolutely loved. Ann Patchett is another person who was a delight when I interviewed her… I have a television program, which you people can stream over the internet just by Googling “Seattle Channel Nancy Pearl” where I’ve interviewed over 80 authors over the years. Geraldine Brooks was totally wonderful. And I guess what I object to, what I have a difficulty with, is egotism. Oh, Stuart O’Nan was wonderful. Now, if somebody wants to be a writer, has any interest in writing, that’s the interview to watch. Because when I finished the interview, I thought, “We have got to get him to Seattle to teach a master class!” I mean, I would just sit there and… he was fabulous, so there are many authors where that’s not true. who just takes him or herself far too seriously, that I just feel… you know, it’s my voice that I want to populate, to hear that book told in, or, not necessarily MY voice, I want to imagine the voice, and not have that override of this not-particularly-nice person. I mean, authors are like everybody, there are some good, nice authors, there are some not particularly-not-nice authors, there are some people who shouldn’t go out on book tours at all because it’s not their thing and I think we need to recognize that.

ST: With the new Common Core standards for schools, they’re shifting a lot more attention to nonfiction. Do you think librarians in general need to bone up more on their nonfiction readers’ advisory? Because most readers’ advisory we talk about is fiction-based, but now with making this shift, we need to work on that a little bit more…?

NP: I think that children’s librarians… when I was growing up, nonfiction was awful. There just was not nonfiction, that biography series Childhood of the Famous Americans, I think that’s probably the only nonfiction I ever read, and frankly looking back, those were probably closer to fiction than nonfiction, but in recent years, there has been a ton of terrific nonfiction and I think that children’s librarians have always steered kids toward nonfiction and publishers are certainly bringing out a lot more stuff, so you know, I think it’s maybe doing more of what we’ve always done, which is matching up books with kids, and now… Consciously, perhaps, thinking even moreso that we need to include nonfiction in that mix.

ST: Can you tell me a little about the Book Lust Rediscoveries series you’re doing with Amazon?

NP: When Book Lust was published, the original Book Lust, was published in 2003, I went to the editor Gary Luke at Sasquatch and I said, “Couldn’t we do a reprint series of my favorite books that are out of print?” And they were a small Seattle publisher and were really in no position to do that, so I shelved that idea until 2010 when Book Lust To Go came out, or, I think, 2010, and then that idea came back because there were so many books that were in there that were out of print. And so then I really started thinking about it, Sasquatch was in a transitional place, they couldn’t do it, and, in the end, working with an agent, a literary agent, Victoria Sanders in New York, the people who really were enthusiastic about it, who loved the idea, who realized it wasn’t going to make any money for anybody, but wanted to do it, is Amazon. I have to say that the book people at Amazon who I’ve worked with, who are all from Seattle, are just really book people, and they love books and they want to bring these books, as much as I do, they want to bring these books back to the public. So, we’ve done eight. I think the ninth one is coming out at the end of July and it’s wonderful, it’s set in Montana from the turn of the century through the 1930s, the next one after that is fabulous, set in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania…  And these novels, it just gives me great pleasure and I’m sure it gives the authors great pleasure to have these books… well, I know it does because I’ve heard from the authors… back in print, and I give Amazon a lot of credit for being willing to take on this really labor-intensive project.

ST: Are there any books for that series that you’ve wanted to get that you haven’t been able to work out rights or whatever with?

NP: Yeah, there have been a few of those. There are some British books that I would’ve liked to have done. There are some teen novels that I very much would’ve liked to reprint which nobody has been able to find the rights holder, so I’m afraid those are just going to remain on my shelf in terrible, terrible, ex-library condition. But, yeah, there are, I feel like it could go on for a long time if we could just get the rights to these people.

ST: I’m sure you have a long list anyway, that you can get through, that you can get the rights for. You’re not in danger of running out of books.

NP: No, but I think it’s going to stop at 13, but it might go on.

ST: Okay. Tell me about the Nancy Pearl Endowment for Librarianship.

NP: Yes, I’m an adjunct at the University of Washington’s Information School. Libraries have been my life, public libraries have been my life, and I knew when I was 10 that I wanted to go into public library work, and I have really enjoyed teaching, teaching readers’ advisory, teaching genre fiction for adult readers, to those classes that I thought that one of the things that I would like to do, to give back to the library world was create an endowment for people who are going to the University of Washington who are interested in working in the public library. So, my husband and I have begun that endowment and welcome any contributions. And eventually, it will pay for a full ride for somebody who is interested in public library work.

ST: Just a couple more questions. How did you become friends with the guys from Unshelved?

NP: Well, here’s how I became friends. I was the last librarian in the world who had never heard of Unshelved. And then I got an email from a co-worker at the Seattle Public Library who said “Did you see the cartoon about you? It’s about the librarian action figure.” Now, it’s hard to believe now, but when the librarian action figure came out in September of 2003, it created this huge furor. I mean, editorials were written about whether it was the right thing to do…

ST: Stereotypes!

NP: Right, right. I always say, maybe 25 librarians in the world with no sense of humor and I heard from every one of them. There was that cartoon that they did, that Bill and Gene did. And so then someone said they’re from Seattle. So I emailed them to say “Oh, I just loved that cartoon.” And they said, “Oh, well, we just love you, why don’t we have coffee?” and I said “Great!” Ever since that coffee, we’ve just been the dearest of friends and you know, I think the older I get, the faster their repartee gets and sometimes I’m sitting there, “What? What, I can’t follow you!” They’re wonderful.

ST: Yeah, I had them on the show once and they were just back and forth so much that I can’t get in to get a question in.

NP: Yes, and that’s both good and bad for an interviewer. Absolutely.

ST: Okay, last question, which may be hard to come up with on the spot. If someone wrote a book about your life, what would it be titled?

NP: Oh, I know.

ST: Or if you wrote your own book.

NP: Well, could it be my gravestone?

ST: Yes, yes.

NP: Okay, on my gravestone, I want it to say “She’d Rather Be Reading.”

ST: [laughs] That’s very good, very appropriate. Nancy, thank you so much for talking to me for the show.

NP: Oh, it’s my pleasure, Steve. Thank you for having me on.

ST: Bye bye.

NP: Bye.

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