Reading books, writing books, talking about books.
And walking the talk about books.
Seattle’s favorite librarian, Nancy Pearl, is known the world over for the shushing-librarian action figure bearing her likeness.
“I’m one of those people, I think, who just has trouble sitting still,” Pearl, 75, said in an interview following her annual “Nancy Pearl’s Picks” book talk to a packed auditorium in Langley on Whidbey Island. “I need something to think about and keep myself mentally active.”
She’s no slouch in the physical department, either.
Last year, Pearl started combining her two greatest pleasures — reading and walking. Her love of books dates back to her childhood in Detroit, where she found words and refuge at the local library.
About seven years ago, Pearl took up walking. The loop route from her Seattle home gradually increased to about 5 miles.
Then, she added a good book between her ears and racked up even more miles.
“I thought, well, you know, I could add another block this way, and that would add another chapter,” she said. “And so I kept adding blocks and kept walking.”
In 2019, one such walk lasted 10 days and covered 127 miles in Leeds Liverpool Canal Walk in Great Britain.
Pearl has been averaging about 7 miles a day trekking in her neighborhood near the University of Washington. Before the coronavirus shutdown, it included a stop for a morning cup of tea at Starbucks.
“I’m an early-morning walker,” she said. “I just sort of like to roll out of bed, put my walking stuff on and go. City walking is something I really enjoy.
“If I don’t walk, it’s really not a great day.”
Pearl is an admitted purist when it comes to books, preferring the tactile feel of fingers flipping through pages.
But she’s no literary Luddite.
“I do read e-books, mostly if I’m traveling and in the middle of the night, so I don’t have to turn the light on,” she said with a chuckle.
“But I find that I can’t read serious books on my Kindle. I just can’t take them seriously if they’re not on paper somehow.”
The first audiobooks she checked out from the library were by her favorite British authors, Terry Pratchett and Georgette Heyer.
“As much as I love reading those books in the traditional print and paper, what I found is that listening to them just had this added dimension of charm. And I think partly it was the reader.”
Listening versus reading brings different senses and sensibilities to a person’s literary pursuits, Pearl suggested.
“We bring our whole lives to the book that we’re reading, and it’s you and the author when you’re reading that traditional book,” she said.
“But when you’re listening to a book, a third person has entered that dynamic, and that’s the reader. That’s why that for many people if it doesn’t have a good reader, they’re not going to like the book. I feel that way, too.”
Pearl only listens to books she’s already read. So she knows of what she speaks — and hears.
“I think when you’re listening, you hear every word,” she said. “So for me, listening to books has added so much to my enjoyment of the whole thing.”
She also notes that audiobooks, as well as podcasts, are soaring in popularity because they trigger long-ago pleasant memories of listening to books at bedtime.
“You know, we read to our kids but, generally, sadly, we stop when they learn to read,” Pearl said. “Also, my eyes get tired if I read all day. So many of us spend so much time at the computer that it’s a relief to listen to somebody read to you.”
Although Pearl left her positions with the Seattle Public Library and the Washington Center for the Book years ago, she’ll forever be the quintessential bespectacled librarian thanks to the novelty store Archie McPhee. She was the model for McPhee’s Librarian Action Figure doll, complete with push-button “amazing shushing action.”
In 2003, the same year Pearl released her first book, her 5-inch alter ego appeared. According to Archie McPhee’s website, it sold 28,000 miniature Nancy Pearls in a week. A new version with an added red cape has just been released.
Pearl expresses mixed feelings about her superhero status.
“In some ways, it’s been embarrassing,” she said, “because people think, ‘Oh, she has an action figure.’ I wouldn’t want people to think that I did it. But that action figure really stands for all the good work that librarians do around the world, and I’m really glad it brought publicity for that.”
Pearl fondly recalls two librarians at Detroit’s Parkman Branch Library who influenced her in many ways, including earning her master’s degree in library science at the University of Michigan.
“I knew when I was 10 that I wanted to be a librarian, and I knew that I wanted to be a children’s librarian,” Pearl said. “I really spent my childhood at the library with two wonderful librarians who were just the kindest people to me. I loved them and I loved being at the library.”
Pearl also is widely known for creating the book club program, If All of Seattle Read the Same Book, that’s been imitated in cities around the country.
In 2003, she released “Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason,” which was followed with three more “Book Lust” advisory guides.
That same year, the Everett Public Library invited Pearl to speak about her book — and books in general — in what would become the first of hundreds of such talks regionally, nationally and internationally. She is a regular commentator on public radio and hosts a television show on Seattle’s government cable channel.
“One of the best things I’ve been able to do is I’ve been invited by U.S. embassies in various countries to come and do programs relating to good books to read,” Pearl said. “I was in Estonia, Bosnia, Vietnam and Cambodia.”
Last year, she was invited to the Lima International Book Fair, and in 2018, she traveled to Oslo to give a keynote speech when the National Library of Norway debuted its digitized book collection.
“In order to make books accessible to the students, they developed an artificial intelligence system to help students access the books,” she said. “They named that AI ‘Nancy’ after me.”
In 2017, Pearl released her first novel, “George and Lizzie,” about an unlikely marriage at a crossroads.
“I was happiest when I wrote a novel,” Pearl said. “I figured that it’s pretty darn great to write your first novel at that age. I was 72 years old.”
She’s also the voice of the narrator on the audio version of her own book.
“When I was writing it, it was me telling the story of these two people, George and Lizzie, and so the fact that I got to read it was really special,” Pearl said.
Pearl’s latest book, “The Writer’s Library,” is slated to be published in the fall by HarperCollins. Pearl and her co-author, playwright Jeff Schwager, interviewed 20 American writers about their favorite books.
Many Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners are among the writers interviewed at their homes across the country, including Jennifer Egan (“A Visit from the Goon Squad”), Viet Thanh Nguyen (“The Sympathizer”) and Andrew Sean Greer (“Less”).
“It’s just fascinating the way different people approach writing and reading,” Pearl said. “When you talk to someone about the books they love, you’re really talking about their life.
“Even though the interviews with the writers weren’t at all centered on the books that they wrote, writing always came into it one way or another.”
Elaborating on the connection between reading and writing, Pearl quoted Ernest J. Gaines, creative writing professor and acclaimed author of “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “A Lesson Before Dying.”
Gaines, who died last year, often stated in interviews and at lectures: “My six words of advice to writers are: Read, read, read. Write, write, write.”
Washington North Coast Magazine
This article is featured in the spring issue of Washington North Coast Magazine, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $3.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $14 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to www.washingtonnorthcoast.com for more information.