You don’t usually think of your local librarian as a rock star. Nonetheless, it’s hard to find a better word to describe local book aficionado Nancy Pearl. Besides the fact that she has her own action figure, her daily schedule consists of jetting around the country giving talks about books. Then there’s the radio time. Pearl has an eight-minute weekly slot on KUOW’s arts and culture program “The Beat” every Monday around 2:45 p.m. She also occasionally appears on NPR’s national “Morning Edition” with Steve Inskeep, and she does occasional shows on Tulsa and Wisconsin Public radio stations as well.
Along with being a public figure and book maven par excellence, Pearl considers herself something of a missionary.
“My goal in life is to get people to read more and to be made aware of all the wonderful books out there that don’t ever reach the bestseller list,” she said.
It is in service of this goal that she has written two books, Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason and the soon-to-be-released More Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason. More Book Lust was shipped April 13 and is slated to hit bookstores April 25.
In both books, Pearl gives brief descriptions and recommendations for a wide variety of books, from children’s books to romantic thrillers to great non-fiction. She talks about books old and new, in and out of print and all they have in common is that they have Pearl’s stamp of approval.
If anyone knows what’s good to read, it’s Nancy Pearl.
“I think we were given one life to live, yet through books we can have any number of lives,” she said. “We can be anyone, anywhere, do anything, expand our world and pass the time delightfully. It’s not only about information, it’s about entering the lives of people.”
Due to her “wonderful, low-maintenance, wash-and-wear kind of husband” Joe, Pearl spends all of her time reading. “I don’t cook, I don’t skateboard, I don’t garden,” she said, “I read.”
While she does have a fine leather armchair with ottoman in her Eastlake condo, she says most of her reading nowadays takes place either while walking or on airplanes.
“Long airplane rides make for good enforced reading time,” she said.
Born in Detroit to a broken and difficult family situation, Pearl quickly discovered the public library. She spent a lot of time among the stacks before she finally decided to go out and get her librarian’s degree at University of Michigan. After many years spent raising her two daughters and working in bookstores and libraries in Oklahoma, she moved to Seattle with her husband in 1993 to work for the Seattle Public Library system.
Since her “retirement” this past August, Pearl has spent her time flying around the country speaking to groups about the “perils and pleasures of a life of reading.”
She returned from Bloomington, Ill. a day before being interviewed by JTNews and was flying out to Phoenix the day after. Ironically, it is mostly libraries and library associations that bring her to speak, seeing as how it was the library she retired from. She says her retirement has amounted to a new job, but one she loves.
“I think of myself as a little Jewish Johnny Appleseed, spreading the word about good books,” she said.
The story behind the infamous action figure began one night when Pearl found herself at a dinner party with Mark Pahlow, the owner of gag and novelty shop Archie McPhee. The two sat on the board of a local literacy organization together.
“Somewhere between the wine and the coffee, the subject of action figures came up,” she said. Someone suggested to Pahlow that he could use a librarian action figure to accompany his popular line of famous people which include Moses, Jesus, Freud and Beethoven. Then someone suggested that Pearl serve as the model.
“As we were driving home, my husband said, ‘are you sure you really want to do that?’ and I said, ‘Oh Joe, don’t even think about it, it’ll never happen.’ The rest is history.”
Archie McPhee will release a deluxe model librarian action figure in June.
When Pearl met her husband at University of Michigan she says she was already a reader, but no one could have foreseen the extent of it.
“It has been an organic process,” she said, “talking about the joys of books is what I have always done, now I just have a bigger stage.”
Pearl doesn’t consider her self a book critic, “I don’t so much tell people what they shouldn’t read, but what they might like to read.”
For someone who is theoretically retired and a self-defined bookworm, Pearl doesn’t sit still for long. She recently won the Women’s Endowment Foundation’s Phenomenal Woman award. She speaks every year at the Literary Source breakfast. Mostly however, she worries about the books she hasn’t read.
“I live under a constant state of anxiety because there are so many books, and still more being written every day,” she said. “How am I ever going to get to them all?”
The key, according to Pearl, lies in her system of reading. She never finishes a book she is not loving. Her rule for people age 50 and younger is, read 50 pages and then decide.
“If all you care about is who did the murder, or who marries whom, then you skip to the last page.” The rules change however, if you are over 50.
“Time is short and the world of books is very large,” she said. So, if you are over 50, you subtract your age from 100, the number you are left with is the number of pages you have to read before you can move on.
“Once you reach 100 years of age,” Pearl says with a devious grin, “you can judge a book by its cover.”
Looking for a good read?
Try one of Nancy Pearl’s current picks:
Daniel Silva, Prince of Fire
Liam Callanan, Cloud Atlas
Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001
Mary Doria Russell, A Thread of Grace
Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
Adam Langer, Crossing California
Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness
Nancy Richler, Your Mouth Is Lovely
Andrew Sean Greer, The Confessions of Max Tivoli
Fergus Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America