Pacific Northwest | September 14, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineSeptember 14, home
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Feeding Literate Souls
From the hunger for books, Nancy Pearl makes a life
As a child, Nancy Pearl found refuge in her love of books. Now, as executive director of the Seattle Public Library's Washington Center for the Book and author of "Book Lust," she's passing her passion to others.
About 100 years ago, millionaire Andrew Carnegie decided he had a moral obligation to give away his money. The man who made his fortune making steel and battling unions spent it building 3,000 libraries, based on the impact of a small private library that lent him books as a child.

Carnegie said "there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have ability within them and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community."

Fast forward to the 1950s. A bright young girl named Nancy Pearl, living close by a Carnegie branch of the Detroit Public Library, used it as her refuge from an unhappy home.

In her new book, "Book Lust," (Sasquatch, $16.95) Pearl writes with characteristic candor that "I grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood of Detroit in a family of readers, although my father only went to school through the sixth grade and didn't get his GED until he was 70. My mother, a highly educated woman, was a disastrous combination of fury and depression . . . It was painful to live in our house, and consequently I spent most of my childhood in the public library."

Now executive director of the Seattle Public Library's Washington Center for the Book, winner of a state humanitarian award and model for a librarian action figure put out by zany Seattle retailer Archie McPhee, Pearl remembers that library as if it were yesterday — including its one big drawback:

"There was no public bathroom, which presented a big problem. What I had to do was walk to this gas station and use the bathroom," skirting the gaggle of neighborhood toughs.

Young Nancy's guardian angels were Miss Long and Miss Whitehead, two ladies in the classic librarian mold. Miss Whitehead was "very thin, with a bun and sensible shoes," Pearl recalls. Miss Whitehead took shameless advantage of Nancy's addiction to horse and dog books. "She would say, 'Nancy — I have a brand new dog book — but first I want you to read this other book.' " — works by J.R.R. Tolkien, Rosemary Sutcliffe and other masters of children's literature.

Did Carnegie have the Nancy Pearls of the world in mind? It's a good bet, as is a wager that Miss Whitehead had more impact than she could ever have imagined. Pearl vowed to become a librarian, to do for other children what her angels did for her.

Nearly 50 years later, Pearl has become the personification of Seattle's literate soul — founding the "If All Seattle Read the Same Book" program, making public appearances and doing radio shows, broadcasting her profound love of good books to a public thirsty for good reads. In giving Pearl the 2003 Washington Humanities Award earlier this year, board chairman Jack Faris said the "If All Seattle" program, which was adopted by many other cities, "may be the single most significant public-humanities program in the past 10 years."

Now, in "Book Lust," Pearl offers her personal picks for the 1,800 or so best books she's ever read.

"Book Lust," written with Pearl's special blend of humor, clarity and straight talk, is an A-to-Z compilation of books on selected topics, from "A . . . My Name is Alice" (books by authors named Alice) to tomes on Zen Buddhism and Meditation.

But it's not really about lust, it's about love — a passionate, lifelong affair with the world of literature.

Pearl did make good on her vow, getting her master's degree in librarianship. She got married and moved to Stillwater, Okla., with her husband, Joe Pearl (now a retired professor). They had two children; Nancy Pearl stayed home with them while getting another master's in history at Oklahoma State University. Eventually, she took a job at an independent bookstore in Tulsa.

There, she discovered the power of a good word-of-mouth recommendation.

East and West Coast snobs might not think of Oklahoma as a center of learning or culture. But in the 1980s, oil money was gushing, and people tanked up on books. "We sold 90 copies of 'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant' (by Anne Tyler, named in "Book Lust" as a great book about a difficult mother) on my recommendation." Then the owner went bankrupt, Pearl recalls. "He sort of forgot to pay the sales tax."

Pearl got a job with the Tulsa library and began her career as an advocate for good books. She was books columnist for the Tulsa Tribune and host of a half-hour radio show called "Between the Lines."

Ten years ago, the Seattle Public Library came calling, and today Nancy Pearl is a household word among Seattle's well-read.

Readers who travel the pages of "Book Lust" will be astonished at the breadth and depth of Pearl's reading experience (she insists she's read, or at least skimmed, all the books). It's a book best read twice; once straight through, then kept as a reference that will forever forestall the question, "What should I read next?"

You will meet obscure Pearl favorites (Laurie Colwin, Barbara Pym, George MacDonald Fraser) and learn Pearl's prescriptions for reading in pairs (such as Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi" with Jonathan Raban's "Old Glory, an American Voyage," in which Raban retraces Twain's Mississippi voyages).

The chapter "100 Good Reads, Decade by Decade" could keep the willing reader busy for years working through the best books of the 20th century, starting with Henry James' "The Golden Bowl" and ending with Mark Helprin's "Memoir from Antproof Case."

Pearl offers concise definitions for literary genres that, well, generally defy definition, such as the graphic novel: "in a graphic novel, the illustrations are equal in importance to the text, not, as in an illustrated book, merely an adjunct to the prose, or in a comic book, where the text is supplementary to the illustrations."

No literary bluestocking, Pearl even provides a good chapter on romance fiction, its different categories and its most accomplished practitioners.

Perhaps the single most valuable thing about Pearl's suggestions is that she is honest — bluntly so. "I never lie about a book," she says. "It's too important; it demeans the literary experience when you lie about a book. Sometimes I think I demand too much of literature. I get angry at books that don't follow through."

To find the literary pearls among the swine, she's ruthless. She reads two or three books at a time, and starts 12 books for every book she gets even 50 pages into. "I don't garden, my kids are grown and I don't cook. And I always joke that I have a low-maintenance husband."

She has a ruthless work ethic, too, doing all her reading exclusive of the 40 hours a week she puts in at the library. "It would seem weird to read at work," she says. "Kind of self-indulgent."

"I've just been so lucky," she says of the career path that melded her job and her passion. "It's just unbelievable." To one of her two grown daughters, she recently said: "Life really gets better, the older you get."

Mary Ann Gwinn is The Seattle Times book editor. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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