Book City: What is Nancy Pearl reading?

Seattle's most famous librarian (she even has her own action figure) and author of the 'Book Lust' series hates e-books and 'workmanlike prose,' but has a soft spot for poetry.
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Nancy Pearl

Seattle's most famous librarian (she even has her own action figure) and author of the 'Book Lust' series hates e-books and 'workmanlike prose,' but has a soft spot for poetry.

Nancy Pearl, in her enthusiasm for the written word, has become the world’s first rock star librarian. She’s made reading cool with her “Book Lust” series, talks, television and radio interviews. Named the 2011 Librarian of the Year by Library Journal for the impact she’s had on libraries and the publishing industry, we can’t help but ask … are there any books Nancy doesn’t love??

Valerie Easton: What books are open on your nightstand right now?

Nancy Pearl: Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie, The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin and Alice Munro’s Dear Life.

Any book you’ve read lately that caught your imagination, or changed how you looked at the world?

A book that made me think about the past differently — or opened up the past in ways I hadn’t considered — is David Goldfields’ America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation. I grew up in the north, and what I learned about the war had so little nuance; Goldfield sets context for the war’s causes and results.

Have you read a book lately that you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

I loved We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons by Tim Kreider. I found something in every essay that moved or enlightened me, or made me laugh — all equally valuable. Plus, as a bonus, it made me want to read Tristam Shandy, which nothing in a whole life of reading had inclined me to do.

You’re a fabulous cheerleader for books and reading, but surely there must be some books, authors or genres you don’t enjoy?

There are many many books I haven’t enjoyed. I’m not fond of books that have workmanlike prose. I need three-dimensional characters; I don’t need to like the characters, but I need to know them inside and out. I’m not a fan of horror fiction, and I’m not a big romance reader.

Can you give an example of what you mean by “workmanlike” prose?

In a lot of plot-driven novels, the language is there only to get you to turn the pages, which is fine, but it doesn’t sing. I started The DaVinci Code and gave up after the first paragraph. Another book I didn’t enjoy was the spy novel, Double Game by Dan Fesperman.

Is there a well-reviewed or popular book you don’t think lived up to the hype?

The new John Grisham (The Racketeer).  His books always disappoint me.

So how does it feel to be an action figure?

It feels weird. No one ever thought 100,000 of those would be sold. My niece even saw one at the University library in Melbourne, Australia.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I guess it’s the opportunity to discover new books and authors. If I don’t have something to read, and two or three or four books lined up, I get extremely anxious.

Have you met an author or two that you got a big kick out of?

An interview that stuck with me is the one with Stewart O’Nan. He said the only thing he’s interested in is seeing how people get through their lives. I was blown away because that’s what I’m interested in too. And it shocked me that he goes up to his study in the morning and comes down at night and if he’s written 300 good words he’s happy. I’d like to take a writing class with him. Have you read his book Emily Alone?

What do you tend to read for your own personal enjoyment?

Sad to say, nothing I read is not, ultimately, in some way or another for work.

What were your most cherished books when you were a child?

I loved Johny Tremain by Esther Forbes, To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street by Dr. Seuss, and all the Robert Heinlein novels for kids, especially Red Planet, Between Planets and Space Cadet.

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you?

This is the kind of writing I love; “I blame it all on the Hobbit, that, and my supportive home life. I grew up in one of those loving families that fail to prepare a person for life.” I don’t even remember much about the book that’s from, which is Alice I Think by Susan Jube.

Do you have a book that you’ve re-read over the years?

Rose Macauley’s The Towers of Trebizond is endlessly interesting because you never know if the narrator, named Laurie, is a man or a woman, despite all the clues the author drops. I’m always trying to figure it out. Macauley loved the Anglican church, animals and travel, and she got all of them into the book, which is about traveling through Turkey in the 1950’s.

Do you have any favorite mysteries?

Under the Beetle’s Cellar by Mary Willis Walker, The Edge of the Crazies, by Jamie Harrison, Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers, In the Last Analysis by Amanda Cross.

Do you read books electronically, download them, get them from the library?

I can’t read on an e-reader. It doesn’t give me any of the same pleasure as I get from a printed book.

Are you a fast or slow reader? Do you write in the margins?

It varies, depending on the type of book. For commercial fiction like mysteries, I’m a fast reader because it’s all plot and I want to see what happens. But for nonfiction and what we call, for want of a better term I suspect, literary fiction, I read much slower. I don’t write in books, but I take lots of notes and copy down quotations.

When and where do you settle down to read?

I usually sit in a black leather chair in my living room, underneath a large skylight, so as to get all the sunshine that I can.

Do you read poetry? Any favorite poets?

I inherited my love of poetry from my mother, and many of my favorite poets were hers as well, such as A.E. Housman. Other favorites are Philip Larkin, W.S. Merwin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker and Marie Howe.

Is there a book you turn to for comfort or to cheer yourself up?

My comfort books are the novels by Elizabeth Cadell and D.E. Stevenson — I’d love to see them all back in print.

What do you think about the future of the book as we know it?

I don’t think the end of the printed book will happen in our lifetimes and maybe not in our children’s lifetimes. I do worry about libraries as public institution, though. If you’re going to download everything, do you need a building?

What book do you plan to read next?

I’m going to reread Rona Jaffe’s Class Reunion published in 1979, before I settle down to reading any 2013 titles.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.