Nancy Pearl's lesser-known passion

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Nancy Pearl

Seattle’s Nancy Pearl is best known as a librarian and as a passionate advocate of reading and books. She shares her enthusiasm for books and writers on public radio and television, and at bookstores, libraries and schools across the country. And she’s the model for an iconic librarian action figure.

But many people may not know that Pearl is also a devoted lover of the past with a master’s degree in history in addition to her master’s in library science.

Ms. Pearl reflects her wide knowledge of history in her bestselling books, including Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason; More Book Lust; Book Crush (reading for kids and teens); and Book Lust to Go (reading for travelers). And now she’s working on her first novel.

Among her many honors, the Library Journal named Ms. Pearl “Librarian of the Year 2011.” As the executive director for the Seattle Public Library’s Washington Center for the Book, she created the “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book” program, which has been emulated by many U.S. cities. Her book talks are aired on National Public Radio, including Seattle NPR affiliate KUOW-FM (94.9), and on Book Lust, her television program on the Seattle Channel. She lives in Seattle with her husband, Joe Pearl.

Pearl recently sat down at the Bryant Corner Café in northeast Seattle and discussed her affection for history and books set in the past.

How did you come to love and study history?

I’ve been interested in history since I was a little girl. As many young readers do, I loved historical fiction, especially British history. Plus, my father fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Spanish Republicans, so that was a major historical event that permeated our household.

And then, when I was living in Stillwater, Oklahoma, my husband was teaching at Oklahoma State University and my daughters were 3 and 4, I wanted something to do that would keep me thinking and learning. So I decided to go back to school. I got accepted into the history program at O.S.U. I’d take one class a semester and, after seven years, they said, “Oh my gosh, you have enough credits to get your masters degree.”

It was very hard for me to focus on just one area or time period of history. I was still very interested in the Spanish Civil War and I did one research paper on the British response and the debates in Parliament. And, because I went to St. John’s in Annapolis, Maryland, for my first two years of college and that’s basically all history of one sort or another [with study of the Great Books], I was and am very interested in Greek and Roman history, as well as medieval history and philosophy. And I’m fascinated by World War I. It’s endless.

Your books reflect your wide reading in every sort of history.

That was a nice thing about writing the Book Lust books. I could include the books I had loved as a child or young adult as well as the books I was reading and loving at the time I was writing the books, so there is indeed a ton of history in them, especially the most recent one, Book Lust to Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds and Dreamers. I included many different countries and specific locations, and when you talk about a country, you have to start with its history.

Your enthusiasm for history is palpable in your books. Are there a couple of history books from when you were younger that you’d recommend?

There are just so many. I loved Thucydides and his retelling of the Peloponnesian Wars, which still resonates in contemporary times. There are the philosophical differences between Sparta and Athens and the imperialistic push of Athens. And something that keeps me up at night is thinking about the Melian debates and how Athens was moving from a democracy to something entirely more evil.

One of the best books I’ve read about history is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. So many have said that Britain’s descent to a second-class country was because the cream of that generation was killed in World War I: “The Lost Generation.”

And I’ve always been interested in India. One fascinating history is by Jan Morris, writing as James Morris before her sexual reassignment surgery. All three volumes are simply fascinating; I couldn’t put them down: Heaven’s Command, Pax Britannica and Farewell the Trumpets. This is the story of the growth of British imperialism in South Asia.

It must upset you that some people say “I don’t like history. It’s boring. Irrelevant.”

I don’t hear it so much but, when people do say that, I chalk it up to how we’re not doing a great job in our society teaching history, or giving people some historical context for current events.

So when people talk about the Palestinian-Israeli issue, I want to send them back to the book by David Fromkin, The Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Or the biography of Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations. Reading those two gives one a sense of that whole Victorian period of British imperialism and we can understand current events in a fuller, deeper manner. An excellent one from last year is Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson, which is not just the story of T. E. Lawrence, but also what was happening with the Great Powers at the time.

Are there books you recommend for younger readers who may see history as dull and focused only on men on pedestals?

Howard Zinn’s The People History of the United States helps people look at history beyond those pedestals or the perspective of Mount Rushmore and to what happened to the ordinary person. It’s a fascinating look at history from a perspective that we don’t usually consider.

And when you talk about the Holocaust, it’s very hard to wrap your head around the deaths of 6 million people. What does that mean? But if you bring it down to one person, one death, you bring it to the human level, and then it’s hard to resist the call of history.

So you might recommend The Diary of Anne Frank for younger readers?

Yes, The Diary of Anne Frank would absolutely be one. And the Howard Zinn book has been rewritten for an audience of young people.

And a lot of people read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and became interested in American history and the Ingalls family travels from Wisconsin into what was then called Indian Territory in Missouri and then winding up with their homestead in South Dakota. Some of the books, particularly Little Town on the Prairie, are a bit difficult to read because of the depiction of Native Americans.  I understand that the novelist Michael Dorris, who was himself Native American, would never let his children read those books.

And back when I worked as a children’s librarian, there was series of books on history by a man named Edwin Tunis. He wrote many wonderfully illustrated books on America’s past, and it’s a shame they’re not in print.

There are so many books that might ignite interest in history.

Like teaching literature, when teaching history, you can’t present it as something that’s dead and over. It must be a living subject for people to be interested.

I read a lot of nonfiction, but I sometimes feel that fiction can present history more accurately than nonfiction can.

When I think about what’s happening in Afghanistan or Pakistan, I believe it helps to turn to fiction.  One novel that I thought illuminated contemporary Pakistan for me is Kamila Shamsie’s Broken Verses. And there’s Susanna Moore’s One Last Look, about colonial India and Afghanistan, a historical novel based on the life of Emily Eden, whose brother, 1st Earl Auckland, was the Governor-General of India between 1835 and 1842. Another one is Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil, which brings the war in Afghanistan down to a human level.

And it’s always fun to go back and read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. It was Kipling who called Afghanistan “the graveyard of empires.” I wonder how many people in the Departments of Defense and State were familiar with Kipling’s assessment. And remember, he wrote that long, long before Russia’s failed war there. Amazing, right?

And how do you view biographies and memoirs?

My feelings about memoirs are mixed.  Some are good and some are not so good. I joke and say that the first two letters in memoir are M-E, which should tell us something about the genre, right? But there are certainly some that I thoroughly enjoyed and learned a lot from. One is Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which relates her childhood and adolescence in an eccentric right-wing family. Her young husband volunteered and was killed in the Spanish Civil War and she never wavered in her devotion to lefty politics.

A 2014 biography that I really enjoyed was Richard Norton Smith’s biography On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller. I just love that sort of political biography. Also, Robert Caro’s books on Lyndon Johnson are outstanding, of course, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism was great. But my favorite of her works has always been No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. Speaking of Eleanor Roosevelt, a terrific biography of her is Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography. It’s a dynamic portrait of a dynamic woman.

Are there recent history books that you would recommend to readers?

The Unsubstantial Air was a wonderful read about Americans who went to Canada, England and France to become pilots in World War I. The author, Samuel Hynes, was a fighter pilot himself in World War II, probably one of the seminal events of his life, and is now a professor emeritus at Princeton in the English Department. He drew on letters and journals to write the stories of these young brave and, some would say, foolhardy men. Many of them were barely past boyhood. They didn’t have a high survival rate. The majority of them came from Ivy League schools, but interestingly, it was also a way for those young men to meet people from came from different economic levels. And it’s a different way of looking at World War I.

And I read George Packer’s book The Unwinding on the effects of the economic downturn on the lives of three different people, and that was quite good too.

And are there Pacific Northwest historians you have enjoyed?

Tim Egan is a wonderful non-fiction writer and so, so smart. I always find his op-eds in The New York Times both sensible and meaningful.  Of all his books, the one I liked best was The Worst Hard Time, which I always think of as a counterpoint to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, with Egan focused on the experiences of those who didn’t leave for California during the Dust Bowl. I also think of Egan’s book in conjunction with [Seattle writer] Jonathan Raban’s Badlands, which is about the Easterners who came to settle in eastern Montana and the hardships they encountered.

Would you like to add anything for readers about history?

There’s just so much about history that we need to know to understand the present and, unfortunately, I think history is undervalued these days.

Nancy Pearl will interview acclaimed author Ann Patchett at the King County Library Foundation's Literary Lions Gala, 6 p.m. Saturday, March 28, at the Bellevue Hyatt Regency. 


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