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Northwest Passages Book Club: Nancy Pearl’s lust for words encourages reading near and far

Nancy Pearl loves reading books and watching basketball. Now she’s writing about football, sex and marriage. Having retired as America’s most famous librarian, Pearl is finding success with a new gig: novelist.

The only librarian with her own action figure makes cranking out her first novel sound almost easy.

“By the time I finally sat down to write the big first draft was already written in my head,” Pearl says. “It felt as though I were transcribing, not creating something new, so in a way all the hard work of creation was already done.”

Pearl, an NPR commentator and TV host, shares her favorite books in the popular “Book Lust” series. For two decades she has inspired people from Seattle to Sarajevo to put aside their differences and read the same book together. On Jan. 20, she comes to Spokane to for an evening with the Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club.

In an interview ahead of her visit, Pearl talks about her new book, “George and Lizzie,” why she launched the common read movement and how she got her action figure.

Q. What’s a typical day in the life of Nancy Pearl?

A. I start most days off with a long walk, sometimes as long as two hours. It’s the way I keep myself as centered as I can ever be. I mostly listen to podcasts when I walk, or occasionally music. When I was working on “George & Lizzie” I’d often find that even though I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, by the time I got home I’d have figured something else out about them, or answered one of the challenging questions that my editor had asked me.

Q. How did you come up with your novel?

A. These two characters, George and Lizzie, came into my head one night when I was lying in bed, and I instantly fell in love with them. For about three or four years I didn’t write anything down; I just thought about them during the day and before I fell asleep at night I would tell myself stories about them, both their lives together and before they met, their families and their friends. Finally, one morning I just sat down and wrote “How They Met,” the first section (which I thought of a snapshot of a particular time/place/event in George and Lizzie’s life) in what became the finished novel.

Q. What do you want readers to take away from the story?

A. I love character-driven novels, novels that you read because you care about the characters and want to know all about them, or as much as the author chooses to share, of course. I hope that when readers finish the novel, which is about a couple with very different orientations to the world who are trying to figure out how to be a couple, they’ll feel as though they’ve made some interesting new friends.

Q. You grew up in Detroit and decided you wanted to become a librarian at a young age. Why?

A. I grew up in what would now be called a dysfunctional family: back then I only knew that being home was not a particularly happy or safe place, so I spent all my time at my local public library, the Parkman Branch of the Detroit Public Library. It was a place of refuge for me, and a librarian there, Miss Frances Whitehead, opened the world of books and reading to me. She showed me that there were other ways of being than the only one I knew. I wanted to help other sad, lonely, frightened children the way she helped me. I write about this more in the introduction to “Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason.”

Q. You’ve noted that librarians perform miracles. What miracles have you you seen?

A. Librarians help turn children into readers by finding them books that they’ll love, and if we want children to become empathetic, to understand and care about other people, then reading – widely and deeply – is the way to accomplish that. Readers make good leaders. We spend so much time in our own minds, in our own skins, but with reading you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. And it all begins with a librarian giving a child a book to cherish. That’s the miracle.

Q. What first inspired you to create the “If Everyone Reads the Same Book” project?

A. In 1997, The Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library received a three-year grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund to expand our adult programming in new directions. Because I’ve long believed that reading and discussion are not only central to a library’s mission but can also help unite a disparate community, we decided to urge everyone in Seattle to read the same book and then attend discussions at their local libraries or community centers or include the chosen title as one that their personal book groups read that year. Our major criteria for choosing the titles: They had to be utterly discussable and raise important issues about our lives today.

At the beginning, we deliberately didn’t choose best-sellers – indeed we wanted to select lesser-known titles, to broaden and deepen a reader’s engagement with the world of books. We produced a Reading Group Guide, which included an interview with the author, as well as discussion questions and suggestions for further reading.

Q. You’ve since inspired many communities to create their own common read programs and even traveled to Bosnia to get teenagers there to share a common read. What were the highlights of that experience?

A. You probably shouldn’t get me started on Bosnia and Herzegovina (as the country is known) because I could talk for hours on my experiences there.

A cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo who was familiar with One Book, One Community selected a book for all teens in the country to read – Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” – and invited me to come to the country to train teachers and librarians in leading book discussions. I saw firsthand how discussing a book could help people begin to see how “the other” can share an essential humanity. It was very, very powerful.

Q. What was the biggest challenge there?

A. The biggest challenge, as it frequently is, is getting participants comfortable enough to share their ideas and feelings. Luckily, Sherman’s book was a brilliant choice for discussions.

Q. What has surprised you most about the movement you started?

A. I’m not so surprised that libraries around the world are continuing their common read projects even 20 years after the first one in Seattle in 1998. What does surprise and delight me is how every community tailors the program to its own particular needs. I am awed when I hear about all the ancillary programming that goes on around the project.

Q. In a recent interview, Isabelle Allende was asked about the book she wished she had written and she said “Harry Potter” – because the series got so many children to read. What do you wish you had written?

A. I would like to have written Anne Tyler’s novel “Searching for Caleb” or “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” or “The Clock Winder.”

Q. You suggest readers commit 50 pages before deciding whether to give up on a book. How often do you quit?

A. Briefly, the Nancy Pearl rule of 50 is this: If you’re 50 years of age and younger, give a book 50 pages before you decide whether to keep reading or give it up. When you’re 51 and up, subtract your age from 100: the resulting number (which gets smaller every year) is the number of pages you should read before deciding whether or not to go on with it. (When you turn 100, you can legitimately judge a book by its cover.)

These days, however, I stop reading the minute I find my mind wandering, or I get annoyed at an authorial tic, or the writing doesn’t live up to what I demand in my reading.

Q. In 2003, a Seattle store began selling the Nancy Pearl Librarian Action Figure with “Amazing Shushing Action.” What’s the backstory?

A. In 2002 my husband and I were at a dinner party with the owner of Archie McPhee, a store in Seattle that sells a lot of gag gifts, including a series of action figures. He told us that he was getting letters about how the Jesus action figure was performing miracles in people’s lives. “But, Mark,” I said, “It’s librarians who perform miracles, every day.” With a laugh, someone suggested that he produce a Librarian Action Figure and someone else said, “Nancy should be the model for it.” More laughter about the incongruity of a librarian action figure, but lo and behold, a year later I went to Mukilteo to be digitized and in September 2003 the Library Action Figure appeared, the same time that the first “Book Lust” book appeared.

Q. What are your new year’s resolutions?

A. My major resolution is to have more patience.

Donna Wares is a senior editor at The Spokesman-Review and runs the Northwest Passages Book Club, a community forum featuring live events. You can reach her at donnaw@spokesman.com.


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