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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Northwest Passages: Librarian Nancy Pearl continues to share her love of books


Nancy Pearl first found refuge in the library as a 10-year old escaping an unhappy home life. She never left.

Six decades later, Pearl remains a fixture in libraries great and small. The former director of the Washington Center for the Book, Pearl travels the world teaching other librarians how to spark love affairs with books. She delights in sharing the debut novel she published at age 72. Often she takes the stage with big-name authors and luminaries, such as Melinda Gates and Tom Hanks, who seek her out.

On Wednesday, Pearl travels to Spokane for a return visit to The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club for a conversation with local author Sharma Shields.

In a recent interview, Pearl talked about her next book, the novel that is keeping her up at night and the evolving role of libraries as social service hubs. “Public libraries have always stepped up to make the lives of the people better,” she says.

What’s a typical day for you?

A typical day for me begins with waking up very early and then setting out on a long walk, usually between 7 and 10 miles, listening to books or podcasts. I find that while I’m walking and not consciously thinking about much of anything, all sorts of ideas come to me: it’s basically how I figured out all about what would happen in “George & Lizzie.” When I get home I try to answer email, read, transcribe interviews and, these days, not play Candy Crush or watch re-runs of “Project Runway” or “The Great British Baking Show.”

What are you working on now?

Funny you should ask that – a friend and I are working on a new book, tentatively titled “The Writer’s Library,” that will be published by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollins, probably in late 2020. It’s a collection of in-depth interviews with 20 to 25 authors about books and reading. Some of the writers we’re interviewing are Susan Orlean, Jonathan Lethem, Dave Eggers, Vendela Vida, Michael Chabon, Russell Banks, Luis Urrea, Charles Johnson, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Andrew Sean Greer

You recently interviewed philanthropist Melinda Gates before a Seattle audience of 1,500 librarians about her upcoming book, “The Moment of Lift.” What was that like?

I’d never met Melinda before and found her to be very friendly, personable and down to earth. We both greatly enjoyed the interview.

What do you think of the book?

I liked the book a lot. I think that women of all ages, but especially young women, will find it very empowering. Melinda did an excellent job offering instances from her own life as well as the lives of women she’s met in the course of her philanthropic work.

In 1988 you launched “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book” and got people reading across the nation. What are your thoughts on the state of the “common read” movement?

I continue to be thrilled by how libraries everywhere have adopted the idea and then adapted it to the needs and interests of their communities.

You frequently give talks. What was your most memorable experience this past year?

My heart was made really happy by my visit to Loudoun County Public Library (in Virginia). I did both a staff development workshop about how to recommend books to people and an evening program for the public about good books to read, and in the course of a long day, I spent a lot of time with the director, Chang Liu, and her staff. What absolutely blew me away was the library’s commitment to reading as a fundamental value of the organization. Their vision statement is “Loudoun County Public Library builds community by nurturing an environment where the joy of reading and learning is celebrated and people and ideas flourish.” I think that’s just about perfect. And to have a library publicly affirm its commitment to books and reading (and make every attempt to follow words with action) is rarer than you might think.

During your visit to Spokane last year, you talked about going to the library as a 10-year-old as a refuge. What are your best memories of spending time there?

My favorite memories of spending time (a whole lot of time) at the Detroit Public Library’s Parkman Branch is how kind the librarians, particularly Miss Long and Miss Whitehead, were to the miserably unhappy child that I was. I believe that the kind of women they were, as well as the books they recommended, ranging from “Misty of Chincoteague” to “The Hobbit” and everything in between, made me the person I am today.

How did that influence your career choice?

I knew when I was 10 that I wanted to be a children’s librarian just like Miss Long and Miss Whitehead because I wanted to help other kids the way they’d helped me.

What do you see as the biggest change in libraries since you took your first job in Tulsa?

Obviously, the biggest change has been the growth of the internet and its impact on library service. Back in the mists of time when I got my library degree, the word computer was never mentioned. I’m no Luddite: I love how at its best the internet can help us in ways large and small – I’ve written all my books on the computer and can’t imagine writing any other way.

What are your thoughts on libraries as social service hubs?

Public libraries have always stepped up to make the lives of the people better. In the early years of the 20th century it functioned as a place of self-education for the thousands of immigrants who came to the U.S. (If you go to Washington, D.C., you can still see – or you could the last time I looked – the old D.C. Public Library, with “The People’s University” carved in stone above the front door.) So that libraries are becoming social service hubs for their communities is in many ways a natural outcome of the library’s ethos, but to me it also speaks to a huge failure on the part of government to deal with the issue of homelessness and poverty.

What’s the last book that kept you up at night? It’s a novel that’s coming out in late spring called “Rabbits for Food” by Binnie Kirshenbaum. I’d never read anything by her before, so it was a complete revelation to me. I haven’t quite figured out how to talk about it, but should say here that it’s not about rabbits.

Do you have any favorite audiobooks?

I do listen to audiobooks but mainly to reread favorites. I just finished the seven books in the “Harry Potter” series and very much enjoyed them, but the audio books I love most are the “Night Watch” novels by Terry Pratchett. He was a brilliant satirist and the books are a constant delight, no matter how often I listen to or read them.

You’ve interviewed many famous authors and last year interviewed actor Tom Hanks on stage in Seattle. Who is the one interview you’ve yet to land?

I wish that Iris Murdoch was still alive, because I’d love to interview her, despite the fact that I would be so intimidated by her brilliance.

Is there a living author?

I guess if I were thinking big my wish would be to interview the Obamas about books and reading.