Nancy Pearl shares her insatiable hunger for books

Seattle in print

Some kids look at the stars and dream of becomingastronauts. Others hunker down in front of computers for hours onend, keying in their labyrinthine, dragon-filled visions for thenext gotta-have-it video game.

When Nancy Pearl was a little girl in Detroit, she had evengrander ambitions.

"I knew when I was 10 that I wanted to be a children'slibrarian," says Pearl, who is 59. As the Seattle Public Library'sdirector of youth services, she has more than accomplished herchildhood goal. What she could not have imagined is that along witha prestigious post in her chosen career, she would also be a bookreviewer for The Beat radio show (Mondays at 2 p.m. on 94.9, KUOW-FM),write a string of acclaimed books (her latest, a collection ofreading lists called Book Lust, is in its third printing), and inspire a 5-inchaction figure based on her 5-foot, 2-inch frame. Press a button onher plastic doppelgänger's back, and its finger moves crisplyto its lips in an unmistakable "shushing" motion.

Mostly, though, Pearl reads a lot ― maybe even too much."I have to say that I'm a compulsive reader," she sighs. "I don'tdo much of anything else. I don't shop, cook, put on makeup,garden. I walk to and from work― I read while walking. It'snot a life I would wish on anyone."

The greatest gift

Tongue-in-cheek melodramatics aside (an enthusiastic cyclist,Pearl has ridden the annual Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classictwice with her husband, Joe), Seattle has benefited greatly fromPearl's singularity of focus. As the executive director of theWashington Center for the Book, she has managed the wildly popularand widely imitated "If All Seattle Read the Same Book" program,which began in 1998 when thousands of Seattleites dove into The Sweet Hereafter, by Russell Banks. This month all ofSeattle is reading Isabel Allende's collection, including The House of the Spirits; Allende will be in town May 24-27for several public events.

For Pearl the citywide book club is the logical extension ofgiving what she calls "the greatest gift": the recommendation of agood book, shared with as many people as possible. And like a lotof things in Pearl's life, her motivation goes back to the dreamsof that 10-year-old girl, who escaped the pressures of aless-than-happy household by following the reading suggestions of apair of local librarians. "In many ways, they saved my life," Pearlsays of Miss Whitehead and Miss Long. "Through theirrecommendations, they opened me up to the world. They showed methat there were different ways to live."

That's what books do, continues Pearl. "Reading helps us expandour world. We only have one life to live. Reading helps us get intoother people's lives, to move beyond the borders of our ownexistence." Though a devoted fiction fan ("I read more fiction thannonfiction because fiction reads more quickly," she says,practically), Pearl pursues a wide range of interests beyond herborders, as a quick scan of the reading lists that make up Book Lust shows. There are nonfiction lists devoted to theCivil War and science ("for the interested but apprehensivelayperson"), as well as lists of books about baseball, ZenBuddhism, and spies and spymasters. Indeed, it is the eclecticnature of Book Lust, as well as Pearl's enthusiasm, that makes it andits author so appealing. "I'm not a critic," Pearl explains. " Book Lust is not a critique. There are many books that Ilove that no one else does because they might not be aware ofthem."

Unless, of course, you're talking about Seattleites. "Seattle isa great book city," Pearl says. "We are blessed with a really largenumber of wonderful independent bookstores. I don't think they'dstill be in business if it were not for the great book readers andbook buyers here."

Having as great a book advocate as Nancy Pearl in our midstdoesn't hurt either.

INFO: Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment,and Reason (Sasquatch Books, 2003; $17). For more information aboutthe Washington Center for the Book and "If All Seattle Read theSame Book," visit www.spl.org You can purchase your very own librarian actionfigure ($8.95) at Archie McPhee (2428 N.W. Market St.; www.mcphee.com or425/349-3009). or call 206/386-4184.

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