AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH "ROCK STAR" LIBRARIAN NANCY PEARL

Photo of Nancy PearlAbout Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl is perhaps the best-known librarian in the country. After the release of her best-selling "Book Lust" in 2003 and the Librarian Action Figure modeled in her likeness, Pearl has achieved rock-star status among readers for her unmatched knowledge and love for books. The Seattle-based writer speaks at bookstores and libraries across the country, has a monthly book talk show on a Seattle TV channel, and is a regular commentator about books on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and NPR affiliate station KSMU 91.1 in Springfield, Mo.

In 2004, Pearl became the 50th winner of the Women's National Book Association Award for her extraordinary contribution to the world of books. When she's not reading, which she says is almost all the time, Pearl is an avid bicyclist and happy grandmother of three. She lives in Seattle with her husband Joe.

Springfield-Greene County Librarians with Nancy PearlAbout this Interview

Before she spoke at the Public Library Association conference in March 2010 in Portland, Ore., Pearl sat for an interview with visiting members of the Springfield-Greene County Library District. She talked about her favorite reads, how she manages to keep up on all the new books and the true story of how she became the model for the book-lover's cult toy, the Librarian Action Figure, sold in library gift shops and online.

Here are excerpts of the interview, and we begin with Pearl's story of how the Librarian Action Figure came to be.

Pearl: "There is a company in Seattle called Archie McPhee, (that) did a whole series of action figures like Jesus and Moses and Shakespeare and people like that. And I had met the owner of the company.

We were both on the board of a literacy organization, and we were having dinner at somebody else's house, and my husband and I were there and (the company owner) was saying that people were writing and telling him that the Jesus action figure was healing them. It was performing miracles in their lives.

"And I said, 'Mark, the people who really perform miracles every single day are librarians.'

"Then somebody else said, 'Mark, you should do a library action figure.'

"And somebody else said, 'And Nancy should be the model.' Then the conversation changes.

Nancy Pearl Action Figure"My husband and I were driving home that night and my husband said his four favorite words to me. Most husbands have much more romantic favorite words, but my husband's favorite words are, 'Nancy, think this through. Do you really want to be a 5-inch, non-biodegradable doll that's going to be around long after you and I and the rest of the world are dead?'

"And I said my favorite words: 'Oh, Joe, don't worry. It'll never happen.'

"Then a year later Mark called me -- could I come to Mukilteo, a city near Seattle, to be digitized?

"And then the rest, as they say, is history.

"Many more than 100,000 of those were sold. And for many months -- not to echo the Beatles -- but for a while they were the best-selling action figure in the company. When they started slowing down a little bit, they came out with the deluxe action figure -- with the 'amazing shushing action.'

"That was all very fun, and some people hated it. About nine librarians have no sense of humor in the world. ...They didn't like the clothes (on the action figure). The clothes in real life were beautiful. They didn't translate into plastic particularly well. But, who could I ask for advice? Moses? You know like -- 'Hey, Mose, should I wear sandals or not?...'

"After we finished the digitization, I sat around with their creative team, who was all of about 12 years old -- all guys -- about 12 years old, talking about what the 'action' should be, because I was an 'action figure.' We all agreed that it needed to be shushing, because what's so funny is the contradiction -- nobody shushes anymore."

Q. How do you keep up with all the new books and resources constantly coming out?

Pearl: (She giggles) OK. I'm going to be honest. I don't cook, I don't garden. I have a very low- maintenance husband... He's a kind of wash-and-wear sort of person. So I don't do anything. My children are grown and gone. And I've been fortunate enough to arrange my life so that the thing that I love is also what I'm doing.

And so basically, I don't have a life. I just read. And I love it..."

Q: So, you read instead of cook. If you were to cook, what would it be?

Pearl: "I have a really great macaroni-and-cheese recipe from the 'Joy of Cooking'. And I did buy -- because now we have this very nice kitchen -- I did buy Mark Bittman's 'How to Cook Everything' book, and I re-bought -- because I had it many years ago -- 'The Silver Palate' cookbook. So, I try to do that to make myself well-rounded."

Q. We heard you didn't embrace audiobooks early on. What's your take on them now?

Pearl: "I'm finding that it's really fun for me to re-read books -- to listen to books that I'm re-reading. Because if you miss something, it's not going to be such a big deal. But, like, Pride and Prejudice -- I just listened to it, and it was a wonderful reader."

"I think it's a different experience than reading a book. It's no better and no worse. But there are differences.

"Now what I do is get up very early. We live in a new house that's right on this big trail that goes through the city of Seattle, and all I have to do is roll out of bed, get on my bike, get on the trail and then I listen to books on tape while I'm biking. Because I'm on the the trail and not on the the streets, I don't have to worry quite so much, and I can still hear things.

"So I just bicycle, bicycle, bicycle. I don't want to stop. Like, I did Pride and Prejudice. And Saturday I rode 42 miles. I'm so old and I rode 42 miles! Because I was listening to Terry Pratchett. The book was called "The Fifth Elephant." It's one of the Discworld series. It's so funny, and it's read so wonderfully. I just kept saying, 'Oh, I'll do another mile, I gotta' hear the rest of this chapter..."

Q. Set the scene for us: Where do you do most of your reading?

Pearl: "We live in house we just moved into in July (2009), and it's very narrow; it's like a Philadelphia row house in a way. It has six stories that we live on, so every room has its own level.

"And then in the middle of it -- and this is going to make it sound very grand, but it is not a grand house at all -- but it has an atrium where the ceiling is a skylight. And in the living room there's an alcove that we had built bookcases in there.

"So I sit under natural light, which there isn't a lot of in Seattle. I sit in the natural light on a black, leathery chair with a hassock so that if my knees are aching I can ice them while I'm reading...after the 42 miles...

"I try not to eat while I'm reading because I don't want to mess up the books. But I do drink, but mostly Diet Pepsi.

"And that's my life. I just sit there and read all those books. There I am sitting under there with two styles of ice packs..."

Q. What's your rule of thumb for how many pages one should read before giving up on a book?

Pearl: "My philosophy is you should give a book -- if you're 50 years of age or under -- you should give a book 50 pages. And that's fair. If, at the end of page 50 all you care about is who marries whom or who killed whom, turn to the last page. ... Then that will satisfy your curiosity.

"But if you're not enjoying a book, there's no sense in continuing to read it. I think 50 pages is a good amount for adults.

"If you're over 50, then subtract your age from 100, and that number, which gets smaller every year, is the number of pages you should try...

"For kids, you can say 'Give it two chapters...

"All it means is you're saying to yourself, 'I'm not in the mood for this book. I can always go back to this book. It's not like this book is going to disappear from my life forever.'

"There are lots of books I've started and not liked at all, and then went back and read and loved. Because I just wasn't in the right mood.

Q. How did you come up with this guideline?

Pearl: Because I was on the radio once and somebody called in and said, 'How much should I read?' And I just made it up on the spur of the moment, and then after that people think it was like written in stone."

Q. You're always talking about other people's books. What about your upcoming book?

Pearl: "I have a new book out in September, 'Book Lust To Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers.' It's fiction set in other countries and books arranged in quirky categories. It was great fun to read and to do all the writing for it, but the writing was -- ugh! -- was hard. Writing is hard. Writing is very hard.

"I love the introduction. It talks about how I'm not a traveler, how traveling makes me anxious. I can't even think about traveling without my stomach rolling around, and I hate the thought of all that. And in so many ways I'm not the right person to write all that because I haven't been to Timbuktu or anyplace exciting. And then I say, but on the other hand, I'm exactly the right person to write this book because I've been to all those places through the books that I've read. So I had fun writing that book."

Q. What is your opinion of so-called 'mashups' that interject new story lines and characters into an existing classic?

Pearl: "I have not (read any) and I don't know how I feel about those. I'm a bit of a fuddy-duddy..."

(Later in the interview she promises to read at least one in the near future.)

Q. What do you make of the growing use of portable readers like Kindle and Nook?

Pearl: "I think that all of those hand-held devices are very useful when you're traveling. You don't have to carry 50,000 books with you. But I'm afraid that Kindle and the Sony Reader and Nook are the death of independent bookstores. And that's what we're going to lose in exchange for some kind of ephemeral easiness of carrying something, and it makes me sad. It's going to get worse because of Kindle and the Nook.

Q. What are your recommendations for some good summer reads?

Pearl: "That's the hardest question. That's such a hard question. Some of my recent favorites...." (at which point Pearl has no trouble ticking off titles and commentary. Here are some of her favorites:)

  • Going Bovine by Libba Bray
  • Liar by Justine Larbalestier -- "Because it has an unreliable narrator, and she says, 'I'm a liar, but I'm going to tell the truth this time...' And you never know whether to believe her. That made me very squeamish about it, but it's a very good book."
  • M.T. Anderson -- My two favorites are not ('The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing') books, but I like Thirsty and Feed...'Feed' begins with the line, 'We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to really suck...' I think that's in a voice that teens would really appreciate."
  • The Passage by Justin Cronin -- "He was jogging with his 9-year-old daughter. He writes literary novels. And his 9-year-old daughter was riding her bike along and he said, 'What would it take for you to ever read a book I write?' And she said, 'Well, if you wrote a book about a little girl who saves the world.' And that's what this book is. And it's fabulous."

  • "The really truly, most wonderful vampire book in the world is Sunshine by Robin McKinley. (She) is a Newbery Award writer but this is for older (kids). I have never met a 17-year-old girl who didn't love this book. You've got to get it. And you just want the sequels. I mean, you want her to write them but she hasn't. It is so good."

  • "There's a book called The Gone-Away World. (by Rick Harkaway)...It's in the science fiction section. And there's a twist in that. There's one sentence that's three-quarters of the way through, and you get to that sentence and realize you have misread the whole book. Go get it...It has a horrible, horrible cover. The hardback cover is awful and the paperback cover is not that much better. But it is so good. The writer is John le Carre's son.
  • "For kids, there's a beautiful series put out by Kids Can Press in Canada, in which they've matched a poem with an artist. Like, they did 'Casey At The Bat' as if it were an inner-city black kid playing, and it's not my picture of Casey at the Bat at all. But it took a really sort of doggerel, light verse and gave it a real resonance. They did another one for the Lady of Shalott ...and The Raven."

Q. Just for fun: If you were going to name a nail polish for female librarians, what would you name it and what color would it be?

Pearl: "I'm not good at questions like this because I take it too seriously because I want to say something about 'good books.'"

(At this point several Springfield-Greene County librarians offer their ideas including Do-Drop Dewey, and Ravishing Read.)

Pearl: "Do-Drop Dewey -- that's good, especially because I think we should drop Dewey, that's a whole other question. Do-Drop Dewey -- oh, do that. And you can choose the color, too..."

Q. Back to the idea of dropping the Dewey Decimal System?

Pearl: "I think that there are some sections of the Dewey Decimal System that would be much more read if they were drawn out from the rest of Dewey, which is so information-focused. But if those other books were drawn out from Dewey, and put together with other books like them. So like the true adventure -- the John Krakauer books would go with the Tom Clancy books...

"I'm not going to see this in my lifetime, but we have to lower the difference between the non-fiction section and the fiction section. ...For most people who are not searching for specific bits of information, they don't care whether it's fiction or non-fiction. What they care about is, 'Am I going to like this book? Am I going to have the same experience reading this book as other books?'

Q: Where is the first place you go when you visit a new library?

Pearl: "Well, first I shake my head disapprovingly that the new books, which are going to (circulate) no matter where they're located, are in prime real estate in the front of the library. I would much rather...us have the supermarket model of having our real meat and milk in the back of the library and just try it and see: 'This way to the new books' ....

"...Then, I always look at what the Friends (of the Library) have for sale. I love those Friends' kiosk things.'

Q: Do you ever shush anybody?

Pearl (laughing): "Always. Always. And I have my little killer shush: SHHHHHHH!"

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