The lusty librarian

Nancy Pearl shares her insatiable hunger for books
Ben Marks

Seattle in print

Some kids look at the stars and dream of becoming astronauts. Others hunker down in front of computers for hours on end, keying in their labyrinthine, dragon-filled visions for the next gotta-have-it video game.

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

"I knew when I was 10 that I wanted to be a children's librarian," says Pearl, who is 59. As the Seattle Public Library's director of youth services, she has more than accomplished her childhood goal. What she could not have imagined is that along with a prestigious post in her chosen career, she would also be a book reviewer 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 of reading lists called Book Lust, is in its third printing), and inspire a 5-inch action figure based on her 5-foot, 2-inch frame. Press a button on her plastic doppelgänger's back, and its finger moves crisply to 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't do much of anything else. I don't shop, cook, put on makeup, garden. I walk to and from work― I read while walking. It's not 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 Classic twice with her husband, Joe), Seattle has benefited greatly from Pearl's singularity of focus. As the executive director of the Washington Center for the Book, she has managed the wildly popular and 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 of Seattle is reading Isabel Allende's collection, including The House of the Spirits; Allende will be in town May 24-27 for several public events.

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

That's what books do, continues Pearl. "Reading helps us expand our world. We only have one life to live. Reading helps us get into other people's lives, to move beyond the borders of our own existence." Though a devoted fiction fan ("I read more fiction than nonfiction because fiction reads more quickly," she says, practically), Pearl pursues a wide range of interests beyond her borders, as a quick scan of the reading lists that make up Book Lust shows. There are nonfiction lists devoted to the Civil War and science ("for the interested but apprehensive layperson"), as well as lists of books about baseball, Zen Buddhism, and spies and spymasters. Indeed, it is the eclectic nature of Book Lust, as well as Pearl's enthusiasm, that makes it and its author so appealing. "I'm not a critic," Pearl explains. " Book Lust is not a critique. There are many books that I love that no one else does because they might not be aware of them."

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

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

INFO: Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason (Sasquatch Books, 2003; $17). For more information about the Washington Center for the Book and "If All Seattle Read the Same Book," visit www.spl.org You can purchase your very own librarian action figure ($8.95) at Archie McPhee (2428 N.W. Market St.; www.mcphee.com or 425/349-3009). or call 206/386-4184.