Though she retired from full-time library work in 2004, Pearl finds herself busier than ever, writing books ("Book Lust," "More Books Lust"), doing her Public Radio book-review show in Seattle and speaking publicly, as she did for Get Lit!, the 2006 edition of Eastern Washington University Press' annual literary arts festival.
But there's always time to pay attention to the power of words.
In a half-hour phone interview, Pearl - who lives in Seattle with her husband Joe - talked about her love of books, the difference that books have made in her life and how she's busy now more than ever.
And then she addressed how she became the model for, of all things, a librarian action figure - which comes dressed in a severe blue suit and action "shushing arm" - and all the furor that the figure aroused.
Dan Webster: I've been looking all around, and there's not a whole lot of bio information on you. First of all, where are you from originally?
Nancy Pearl: From Michigan. Detroit.
DW: Tell me about your education. You grew up there?
NP: I did. I went to the University of Michigan as an undergraduate and then got my library degree from there as well.
DW: That was when?
NP: Oh … um, it was so long ago …
DW: It was in the 20th century, right?
NP: (laughs) It was in the 20th century: 1967.
DW: That was the year I went into the Army.
NP: Oh, good. You know what it is to be that old.
DW: Yeah, but here you are retired and it seems as if you're working harder now than when you were a full-time librarian.
NP: That is true. That is absolutely true. I don't think anybody, certainly I didn't, expect any of this exciting life would happen.
DW: Where did you get your first library job?
NP: My first job was with the Detroit Public Library.
DW: So you went into public libraries rather than going the academic route.
NP: Because that was always what I knew I wanted to be. There was no question in my mind.
DW: And why was that?
NP: Because when I grew up, it was the public librarians who really took an interest in me and kind of made my life bearable.
DW: Which is interesting because many people find librarians, or the popular conception of librarians, the shushing librarians, unbearable.
NP: That's right, but that's, I think, a false conception.
DW: What drove you to books, and why did that turn you into a librarian? You could have become a writer, an English teacher. You could have gone many different ways.
NP: What brought me to books was a need to escape from the world. And I saw as a child the power that books have in making that kind of escape possible. So it was just this sort of natural progression for me. There was also the notion that being a librarian was a way to help other children who were in the same situation that I was, a sort of needing not to be at home. And then to use books really to then broaden my world.
DW: Can you think back to book that early on was a huge influence on you? A book that pointed you in the direction of loving books?
NP: Loving books. That's harder. You know, there were so many of them, and it was due to this one librarian, Francis Whitehead, that I just got turned on to the power of reading. She's the person who introduced me to "The Hobbit" and "The Wind in the Willows" and "Mary Poppins," She was Canadian, so there was a lot that was heavily British in the books that she recommended to me. … All of those, I think, were just a way to shut out the world. Not necessarily, I often say, the healthiest reason to be a reader, but certainly one that I've never regretted.
DW: That's so interesting. Because my experience is that today reading is threatened everywhere just simply because sitting down and escaping in a book just doesn't have the same interactive value as what you can get off the Internet, what you can get off television. Do you see it that way?
NP: I guess I would sort of argue, or sort of offer, that reading is much more interactive. Reading is totally interactive in a strange way because it is you interacting with the words of the author and with those characters and that there's nothing else that allows that. So I think that we tend to think of reading as a very solitary activity, and it's true that a lot of it you do on your own in a private place. But so much of it is really you and the author or your and those characters, and that is what I think is so exciting to me.
DW: I can remember the first time I picked up "The Catcher in the Rye," the first time I picked up Camus' "The Stranger." Those are books that I read all night long. I couldn't put them down. "To Kill a Mockingbird." These are all books that I was a changed person after reading. But I don't know that kids today, largely, have that same experience.
NP: I think that some of them do. I think the trick is to find the right book for the child at the right time, and there are different ways of doing that. And a lot of times it takes a special teacher or a relationship with a librarian. But that's the exciting part about it.
DW: So you took that first job in Detroit. How long were you there?
NP: I was there about a year and a half. Then I had children, and we moved to Oklahoma.
DW: Oklahoma from Detroit? There's a whole different world.
NP: From Ann Arbor, which made it even worse. But my husband got a job at Oklahoma State University teaching human development and trans-personal psychology. So we moved and stayed there for many, many years.
DW: And you were able to get library work?
NP: Well, first I managed a bookstore for nine years, an independent bookstore in Tulsa. And then went back into the library as a collection development librarian. I was head of collection development for the entire Tulsa library system. And then I was offered the job here in Seattle in 1993.
DW: Talk about a change.
NP: Yes. It was not hard when I was offered this job. The only down side was that my husband had to stay in Oklahoma for four more years so that he could finish out his career before he could retire at the earliest possible moment. But I made a list of all the reasons why I would come here, what were the benefits versus staying in Oklahoma, and there was no reason to stay in Oklahoma.
DW: So you came and took the job as the director of the Washington Center for the Book?
NP: Right. And I left the library a year ago last August. It's been almost two years. And I've been working harder than ever.
DW: Tell me how the books ("Books Lust," "More Book Lust") came about? I know they're published by Sasquatch but was it your idea, did somebody come to you?
NP: I had originally written two books for a publisher called Libraries Unlimited, which are guides to mainstream fiction. And they're kind of arranged by the appeal that the book has. So if you like characters, there are a whole group of books in which the character is the major appeal. It's sort of a theory of reading that I find very interesting. Those were published as reference books for libraries, and I always thought, "Gosh, you know readers would really love them." And so I always thought, "Wouldn't it be nice if they were published as trade paperbacks or something." And then the people at Sasquatch, because I review books on the radio here every week, came to me and said, "How would you like to do a book for us on good books to read, much less formal than the one you did for Libraries Unlimited?" But not just fiction but nonfiction as well. So that was just so exciting.
DW: And whose idea was it for the title and how to market them?
NP: They came up with the title. If it were up to me it would be so boring. I mean, I would probably have said something like, "Great Books: Try These." Interestingly enough, the distributor, which is Publishers Group West, originally did not care for the title. I think they were just a little bit nervous about it.
DW: It's a great title, though. Isn't that strange? If you use the word "lust" in a book title, I guess people are going to get nervous. So I guess I understand that. But that's the appeal, isn't it?
NP: I know. It was so clearly the right title. We spent a whole day trying to pick another title that even came close. And finally we just said, 'No, we'll go with "Book Lust." ' And full steam ahead."
DW: So the idea of the way that the book is structured, is that yours?
DW: Because so many of these kinds of books are "500 Books You Should Read," and they're in alphabetical order. Or they're alphabetical by author. But you didn't do that.
NP: No. What Gary Luke, the managing editor of Sasquatch Press, said was, "I think you should come up with a bunch of quirky categories. And whatever books you want to choose, just arrange them in those categories." And I did. So it was kind of all fortuitous. The coming together of all the best at just the right moment.
DW: And how long have you been doing the radio show?
NP: Since 1993. Since the very beginning. I had been doing radio stuff on the public radio station in Tulsa, so when I moved to Seattle the program in Tulsa sent tapes of some of the shows that had done and said, "You should have her on live. She has no fear."
DW: I've looked at the list of some of the people you have interviewed, and I'd be so intimidated. Last year I interviewed Salman Rushdie over the phone, and I was so nervous. And within the first five minutes he put me so at ease. He's such a charming man.
NP: That's so interesting because I would have been really intimidated.
DW: He was extremely intelligent and extremely charming. He was willing to go anywhere and answer anything, no matter how stupid.
NP: I just sort of close my eyes and pretend (laughs).
DW: But now you're modern and everything. You're podcast.
NP: It's amazing what this world has come to.
DW: So tell me about the action figure. Where did that come from?
NP: That came in because the owner of Archie McPhee (Mark Pahlow) lives in Seattle. I was on a board of an organization that works with literacy, as he was. And we were at a dinner party, and you know they do a Moses action figure and a Jesus action figure and Einstein and Freud and Shakespeare. And he was telling us that people were writing into the National Enquirer or one of those papers and saying that the Jesus action figure was performing miracles. It was healing these people. I said, "But Mark, the people who are performing miracles every day are librarians." And someone else said, "Oh, Mark, you should do a librarian action figure." And then someone else said, "And Nancy should be the model because she doesn't take herself seriously." I'm not that kind of dreary person. And we all just thought that was hysterically funny, the idea of a librarian action figure. And then as we were driving home that night, my husband said, "Would you really want to be the model for that?" And I said, "Oh, Joe, don't even worry about that. It will never happen." And then a year later, Mark called and said, "Can you come to Mukilteo to be digitized."
DW: So what was all the controversy about?
NP: It about the shushing and what the figure was wearing. And whenever someone complained about it, another 2,000 sold.
DW: The controversy being that it's a stereotype?
NP: Right. What I think is that there are probably nine librarians in the world who have no sense of humor and who take themselves far too seriously, and I heard from all of them. They just didn't see that this whole notion of a librarian action figure was a tribute to the profession. And we needed an action that everyone associated with librarians. They just didn't get that.
DW: It's funny how irony just really goes right over people's heads.
NP: As to the whole sense of the notion of being quiet in libraries, I was in San Antonio at the American Library Association recently. It was early in the morning, and I was freezing cold. And because in Seattle they give tickets for jaywalking, I was standing at the corner waiting for the light to change. And a policeman came by on a bicycle and he said, "Well, what are you waiting for. It's too cold to stand. Just cross if you don't see any cars coming." And I said, "Oh, really?" And he said, "Where are you going to?" And I said, "The convention center." He said, "What's there?" And I said, "Oh, there's a librarian's convention." And he said, "Oh, then I better whisper then." I mean, that's why the librarian action figure had to have that shushing.
DW: When you come to Get Lit!, what will you say, what will you do?
NP: For the talk in the evening, I'm going to talk about really good books to read that people might not have discovered yet. Some of the best books that I have read in 2006. But I think one of the most valuable things that I can do, one of the most valuable services I can provide in these talks, is to help people really broaden and deepen their relationship to the world. And I can do it by kind of introducing them to stuff that aren't going to be on the best-seller lists aren't likely to be prominently displayed in Barnes & Noble or other bookstores.
DW: Of course, in Spokane, that includes (the independent) Auntie's Bookstore.
NP: And Auntie's, that's right.
DW: Here's the standard question. How many books do you think you read in a year?
NP: I don't have any idea because on one hand I don't do anything else but read, except now for all the writing time that I'm doing. So I do read a lot of books, and I have to talk about at least two new books every week on the radio. But on the other hand, I think it depends on what books I'm reading what books I'm reading, how fast I read them. So if I'm in a nonfiction sort of mood, then those are much slower than fiction, generally. It's so hard to say.
DW: Early on I made the decision that I would rather write film reviews than books reviews because reading is something that I do for myself. I pull away from the world and I go into a whole other realm, and it's a gift that I give myself. And if I have to do that for work, I just found that it didn't work for me.
NP: And I absolutely understand what you're saying. Everything that I read now is fodder for something that I'm going to be doing. So it's hard to forget that and just fall into the world of the book without continually thinking, "Well, am I going to review this up for KUOW? And I have to write this up for this Web site," and this kind of thing. And I think this changes the experience of reading.
DW: I don't want to take up too much of your time, but I can't let you go without asking you what's the best book you've read recently?
NP: A new novel called "The Brief History of the Dead" by Kevin Brockmeier. I absolutely recommend that. It's published by Pantheon. And I'll tell you one of the best Northwest author's books that I've read that I just absolutely loved was Jess Walter's "Citizen Vince."
DW: Wasn't that a good book?
NP: It was fantastic. I thought it was just fabulous. Yeah, just a great book. And I love (Spokane young-adult author) Chris Crutcher's books, too.
DW: Do you find it hard to do negative reviews?
NP: One of the things that I have done in talking about books is not consider myself a book reviewer. Because when I started first being on the radio I would pan a book I didn't like and sort of say, "Don't waste your time reading this books, blah-blah-blah." But then I realized, "What am I wasting valuable radio time talking about a bad book?" I could just talk about the good books that people won't find on their own. So that's the kind of niche that I've tried to carve out for myself.
I just love it when people say, "My gosh, I looked at that list and I consider myself a real reader but I've never heard of any of those books." And I think, "That's just something that I can do." And then I can learn from them what they're reading, too.