Nancy Pearl’s Talk at Simmons College, 4/28/04

Nancy Pearl
Simmons College
Wednesday, April 28, 2004

“She is way more than just the model for the librarian action figure,” Andrea Mercado, Library and Information Science Student Association president, stated as she introduced Nancy Pearl, “She’s fabulous at telling people what to read and she enjoys doing it, too.” Andrea listed Nancy’s numerous accomplishments, including her work at the Seattle Public Library and the Center for the Book.

Nancy talked about her book Book Lust and reading. She is very funny. She speaks quickly and holds the attention of the audience. The action figure really captured her likeness, especially her glasses.

“In the beginning, I was born,” she began, “And I was born a reader.” She credits the Parkman Branch Library in Michigan with her lust for reading. That building seemed like a Carnegie library, but she learned recently it is not. “You walk in the front door, the circulation desk is in front, on the left is the adult section and on the right is the children’s section and never the twain shall meet.” The first adult book she read was Gone with the Wind. She credits librarian Francis (sp?) Whitehead with encouraging her to read and becoming a librarian. At the age of 10, she realized she wanted to become a children’s librarian just like Miss Whitehead. “There could be nothing better in the world I could do for another child than what she did for me.” She was Miss Whitehead’s colleague for a number of years at that library.

“I have three things to talk about,” Nancy counts on her fingers, “Books, books, and books. Otherwise, I have very little to talk about.” She likes to hear about what other people are reading, too.

She’s in charge of youth services at the Seattle Public Library and was one of the hostesses at a breakfast for a youth reading program. She sat at a table with several dignitaries once. She asked what they were reading, so they talked about The Da Vinci Code. When she admitted dreaming about her childhood library frequently, the dashing gentleman sitting next to her advised her to get a life.

Reading is a way to partake in thousasnds of lives instead of just the one we’re given, she explains. “One of the things you can do as a librarian is introduce people to books they might never run across. … You as a librarian can bring that gift to someone.”

Sasquatch Books in Seattle approached her about writing a book about good books to read. They wanted her to come up with about 200 quirky categories and about 300 words for each category, but they didn’t particularly name anything specific she had to write about except for Civil War fiction because the guy was looking for something to read. It became the first category in the book and became the template for the rest of Book Lust. She begins with the classics and ends by introducing new books. Gone with the Wind, Red Badge of Courage, Andersonville (which she highly recommends), Cold Mountain, In the Fall, and Killer Angels are on the list. “Every generation writes its own Civil War novel. … The concerns of each generation come out in the Civil War fiction.”

First Lines to Remember is another section she named. It’s why Book Lust is called Book Lust and why the photo on the cover is what it is: someone clutching a book. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” and “Call me Ishmael” she named.

She talked a bit about Pete Dexter and his writing. She admires his writing, but she doesn’t particularly like his characters. She had to read The Paper Boy for ALA’s Notable Book Council even though she thought she wouldn’t like it. The Notable Books Council names the twenty-five best books of the year. She recommends it for librarians who really like to read. Council members must read all of the nominated books, which usually number around 90.

“My brother Ward was once a famous man” is the first line of The Paper Boy. She expected to only read the book while commuting on the bus, but found herself sucked into it. It’s a book about two brothers and a father who love each other very much, but are unable to express it. She also recommends Dexter’s new novel Train.

Other great first lines:

  • “First I had to get his body into the boat.” Rhian Ellis’ After Life
  • “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  • “I joined the baboon troup during my twenty-first year. I never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla.” Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons.

  • “‘You’ll want to scratch,’ said the nurse. ‘Don’t,’ said the orderly.” John Griesemer’s No One Thinks of Greenland
  • “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay
    (These first lines and their citations are in Book Lust.)

The book begins with A … My Name is Alice and ends with a section called Zero: This Will Mean Nothing to You for books about nothing.

She also included many of her favorite writers, like Iris Murdoch (“one of the most brilliant writers of the Twentieth Century”) and Robert Heinlein. She named many others, like Rex Stout, Richard Powers, and Frederick Bush. She picked the writers she thought it would be a shame going through life without ever reading.

In January 2003, she turned the manuscript in. She felt really happy for about a week reflecting on all the books she included that she really loves. Then, she began thinking about all of the books she omitted, like Anthony Trollopp. She began getting e-mails from people around the world with suggestions of authors and books, too; most were respectful. Sasquatch has asked her to do a second book, which should be out in September 2005. She hopes they’ll keep the working title: Book Lust Two: The Morning After.

“Reading for pleasure is such a major part of my life,” she continues, praising the combination of her avocation with her profession. She thinks we shouldn’t be bound to read books just because someone else likes them, a reviewer praises it, or its won a Pulitzer Prize. What she’s come to believe is that if we don’t like reading a book is that at that moment in a life, that book has failed the reader. We should put it away, return it to the library, or give it to a friend. Then return to it later in life to give it a second chance. Many books

To answer the question “How long should I read a book before I give up?” Nancy developed the Rule of 50: “If you are 50 years of age and younger, you should read the first 50 pages of the book then ask ‘Do I really love this book?’ If at the bottom of page 50 all you really care about is who the murderer is, read the end and put the book away.”

(As far as she knows, John Ashcroft has not figured out a way to track who has finished a book.)

“If you’re over 50, subtract your age from 100 and the resulting number is the number of pages you should read before giving up.” Nancy says it’s one of the few rules that rewards people for getting older. A 97-year-old woman at the talk where she announced the Rule of 50 made a point of telling her how much she likes the rule.

Unfortunately, Nancy said it doesn’t count for book group books or homework.

Virginia Wolf “How Should One Read a Book:” “I have sometimes dreamt that when the day of judgment dawns and the great conquerors, lawyers, and statements come to collect their rewards …” paraphrased The Almighty will turn to Peter when he sees us approaching heaven with books under their arms and say ‘We have nothing to offer these people; they have loved reading all along.”


Something about reading (I didn’t hear the question) and the Brothers Karamazov. Nancy said she really likes Lord of the Rings.

Q: Were you teaching librarians about how to do readers advisory?
A: Yes

Q: What do you do if you’re over 100?

A: Someone reads to you.

Q: Is it better to borrow a book from a library or buy from a bookstore?

A: Nancy doesn’t think libraries and bookstores compete; they feed each other. Some books she has to own, but many she borrows from the library. She usually reads a book from the library first, then decides whether to buy it. She mentioned a memoir by Skloot as an example. She read it once, then realized she kept wanting to refer back to it. “You can’t own every single book. You have to make that division between books that are more expendable than others.”

Q: Do you have a category of books you used to love or books that have stopped speaking to you?

A: Absolutely. “Every time you reread a book, you’re reading a new book.” Your responses change because of where you are in your life. Racial attitudes in older books challenge her.

Q: Do you have any time management tips for those of us who like to read, but don’t have the time to read 90 books a year?

A: “You have to make choices.” Her life has been devoted to reading and it’s been a good life for her, but it isn’t balanced. She reads, but she does almost nothing else. She doesn’t garden or cook or skateboard. She has a low-maintenance husband and grown children. You have to decide what to read and what you’re going to give up to read. When Book Lust was published, she wanted to dedicate the book to her new granddaughter, hoping she’ll love to read, but not too much. “Just read,” she advises acknowledging her answer didn’t help much.

Q: Something about getting nonreaders to read

A: “For some people, reading is not a necessity, like breathing.” There are a lot of other great things a person can do in a life. You can find books that can appeal to almost anybody. She doesn’t think it’s possible to turn everyone into readers, but it is possible to find a book someone will really enjoy reading. “It’s sad if someone works in a public library and doesn’t read,” she laments.

Q: What about Seattle’s new public library?

A: Yes, it was built. Rem Koolhaas designed it. Parts of it are wonderful and parts of it she feels apprehensive about. He took a plan librarians helped with and turned it into a building. It opens May 23.

Q: Does she read periodicals? How does she find books others might not find?

A: She reads fewer and fewer periodicals as time goes along. Many people recommend books to her and she browses library and bookstore shelves. She reads reviews for the description of the book and its appeal. She learns about books similar to how the rest of us will learn about books.

Q: What do you think about books on tape?

A: She doesn’t listen to books on tape because that’s not how she processes information. “If I read a book on tape, is it the same experience as reading the book? It’s just a difference experience. Your experience is mediated through a third-person. You aren’t imagining the voices. Someone is doing that for you.” She’s never been able to listen to books on tape.

Q: How do you browse shelves? On your knees? Only look at books at eye level?

A: It gets worse as you get older. Many people only read the shelves that are easy to view. Bifocals and trifocals make things worse. As librarians, we can move books to bring them into view better. Don’t weed a book based on circulation numbers because you don’t know why it hasn’t circulated. Perhaps it hasn’t circulated because no one has seen it.

Q: (I couldn’t hear this question …)

A: Novels in poetry form are in Book Lust

Q: How do you organize your home library?

A: Doubled shelved without much order: fiction is alphabetical by author and nonfiction is sortof alphabetical by author; books against the baseboards are not organized. She has a section about how libraries should be organized (not based on Dewey).

Q: I asked about the action figure because she was winding down, had brought it up earlier, and no one had asked about it.

A: She gave an introduction to Accoutrements and their other zany action figures. Someone at Accoutrements mentiong getting letters about how the Jesus action figure was performing miracles in their lives at a dinner party Nancy was at. Nancy said something about how librarians perform miracles every day. Someone suggested doing an action figure based on Nancy. About a year later in a radio interview, Mark mentioned the company was planning a librarian action figure based on Nancy, so people began calling her. She thought it was a joke until someone called her and arranged for her to be digitized. She joked, “There’s no one you can call up to ask ‘What should I wear when I get turned into plastic?'” She admits her selection did not work as well as she thought. It makes her look very dowdy. She related that her granddaughter will point to the doll and make shushing noises. She thinks that’s fine as long as she doesn’t point to the doll and say “Dowdy!”

They decided on a shushing action because they wanted a universal action many people would associate with librarians. Some of the other options weren’t as librarianesque.

She’s since learned many librarians don’t have a sense of humor.

The talk ended with Andrea plugging the sales of the action figure and book.

I overheard people debating whether to take their action figures out of the boxes before getting Nancy to sign them. I got one signed, of course, and told her I’ve been blogging about the action figure before it came on the market.

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