Nancy Pearl (born January 12, 1945) is an American librarian, best-selling author, literary critic and was, until August 2004, the Executive Director of the Washington Center for the Book at Seattle Public Library. Her prolific reading and her knowledge of books and literature first made her locally famous in Seattle, Washington, where she regularly appears on public radio recommending books. She achieved broader fame with Book Lust, her 2003 guide to good reading. Pearl was named 2011 Librarian of the Year by Library Journal.
Nancy Pearl was raised in Detroit, Michigan and, by her own account, spent much time of her childhood at the public library. Her decision to become a librarian started at the age of 10 with the inspiration of the children's librarian at her local public library. She credits books and librarians with helping her through a difficult childhood: "It's not too much of an exaggeration—if it's one at all—to say that reading saved my life." She earned her master's in library science at the University of Michigan (1967) and became a children's librarian in her hometown library system before moving on to other libraries. As a hobby, Pearl wrote poetry as a young woman and in 1980 published a story in Redbook magazine called "The Ride to School."
Pearl moved with her husband, professor Joe Pearl, from Detroit to Oklahoma, where she raised two daughters (Eily Raman and Katie) while earning another master's degree, this one in history. She worked in an independent bookstore as well as the Tulsa City-County Library System. Craig Buthod, who worked with Pearl in Tulsa before he became the deputy director of the Seattle Public Library, recruited her to come to Seattle in 1993. She originally traveled to Seattle without her husband for four years, until he reached retirement age and joined her. Pearl said the decision to join the library was one of the few times in her life when she instinctively knew she was doing the right thing.
In Seattle, she became something of a local celebrity, founding the pioneering and much-imitated "If All Seattle Read The Same Book" project, appearing regularly on public radio recommending books, and eventually becoming executive director of the library system's Washington Center for the Book. She also taught a course at the University of Washington Information School called "Book Lust 101." The course teaches future librarians how various literary genres work and what draws people into a book.
Pearl achieved broader fame with Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason (2003), her readers' advisory guide to good reading. More Book Lust (2005), with the same subtitle, received much acclaim ("a sprightly follow-up") and was chosen by the Today Show as one of its book-club selections. In March 2007, Pearl released a book of recommendations for children and teens titled Book Crush.
In January 2012, Amazon.com announced that it would publish a number of out-of-print titles recommended by Pearl, in a venture called Book Lust Rediscoveries. Approximately six novels, originally published between 1960 and 2000, will be published each year in various print and electronic formats. For each title, Pearl will provide an introduction, book discussion points and suggestions for further reading.
"Amazon just blew me, my agent – both of us – away with their enthusiasm for doing something so wonderful as resurrecting books that never should have gone out of print in the first place," Pearl said on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Although 20 traditional publishers had turned down Pearl's proposal for the rediscoveries, Amazon's agreement to re-issue the titles set off an intense negative response.
"I knew the minute I signed the contract that there would be people who would not be happy, but the vehemence surprised me," Pearl told The New York Times in February 2012. "I understand and sympathize with the concerns about Amazon's role in the world of books. If I had to do this deal all over again ... well, it's a hard question. But I would still want these books back in print."
Pearl on reading and librarianship
Part of Pearl's success with the public hinges on the idea of connecting with the reader without pretense. Pearl is not forgetting her academic background. However, she is finding material that engages the reader and gives the reader permission to enjoy the material of their choice even if it is not the standard reading that the academics say we should all know. Pearl states that readers become more demanding about the quality of material that they read as they read more material. For Pearl, it seems that the most important aspect of reading a book is to enjoy it. If a reader is not enjoying a book, then she has a rule for when to stop reading that book.
Pearl's approach to enjoying reading is the Rule of 50 which states "If you still don't like a book after slogging through the first 50 pages, set it aside. If you're more than 50 years old, subtract your age from 100 and only grant it that many pages." In her books, Pearl recommends 3,400 titles, grouped in chapters such as "Horror for Sissies" and "Good Reading from the Government (Really!)."
Pearl's program, "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book" was a concept to promote literacy and to encourage community. The program was hugely successful and discussed across the nation. Many other communities began to offer similar One City One Book programs based on Ms. Pearl's success. Her appearance on local public radio fueled her popularity as her listeners began to find books that they actually enjoyed reading. Ms. Pearl's knowledge of books and ability to recommend the right book to the right reader, led her to gather her thoughts from her own reading, writing, and speaking into a collection of book reviews. She began publishing books about books.
Pearl says that the largest problem facing librarianship today is that "we have yet to balance the three important functions a library has in a community: information access, providing people with books and material for their recreational learning and reading, and offering quality programs for our patrons. The pendulum swung way over on the information access side and has yet to right itself. We graduate people from library schools (information schools) knowing how to build a website, but not knowing how to recommend a book to someone who comes in asking for something good to read."
Recognition and awards
Pearl has had her face on an American Library Association poster and has received numerous awards. Her book reviews appear in The Seattle Times, Booklist, Library Journal, and on the radio on KUOW-FM Seattle, and KWGS Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In 2003 she received an unusual honor when the Seattle-based company Accoutrements created a librarian action figure in her likeness to be sold in their Seattle store, Archie McPhee. Featuring Pearl with a stack of books and a finger to her lips, the doll's "push to shush" action was popular with some librarians and dismaying to others who felt that the doll reinforced librarian stereotypes. Pearl herself said that the shushing aspect of the action figure would determine "which librarians have a sense of humor."
A tribute band called 'The Nancy Pearls' gave their debut bluegrass performance on the Mitchell Library rooftop (Sydney, Australia) on December 17, 2004.
- 1997 Open Book Award from the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference
- 1998 Totem Business and Professional Women's "Woman of Achievement Award"
- Library Journal's Fiction Reviewer of the Year (1998)
- Allie Beth Martin Award from the American Library Association (2001)
- Washington (State) Humanities Award (2003)
- 2004 Brava Award from Women's University Club in Seattle, recognizing "women of exceptional ability in the greater Seattle area";
- Louis Shores--Greenwood Publishing Group Award, 2004 for excellence in book reviewing
- Annual award from the Women's National Book Association (2004–2005)
Ontario Library Association Media and Communications Award (2004)
- 2011 Library Journal Librarian of the Year
- Now Read This: A Guide to Mainstream Fiction 1978–1998, Libraries Unlimited, 1999,ISBN 1-56308-659-X
- Now Read This II: A Guide to Mainstream Fiction, 1990–2001, Libraries Unlimited, 2002,ISBN 1-56308-867-3
- Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason, Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 2003,ISBN 1-57061-381-8
- More Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason, Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 2005,ISBN 1-57061-435-0
- Book Crush: For Kids and Teens : Recommended Reading For Every Mood, Moment, and Interest, Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 2007, ISBN 978-1-57061-500-9
- Book Lust To Go, Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers, Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 2010, ISBN 978-1-57061-650-1
- Rebekah Denn, Nancy Pearl trading the quiet confines of the library for a life of leisure, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 2, 2004.
- "Nancy Pearl: L.J.'s 2011 Librarian of the Year". Library Journal, January 15, 2011
- Librarian Action Figure page from Archie McPhee
- Broom, Jack. Toymaker finds librarian who's a real doll. Seattle Times, July 10, 2003.
- "Introducing Nancy Pearl’s 'Book Lust Rediscoveries' Series", Amazon.com, January 11, 2012
- "Publishers and Booksellers See a 'Predatory' Amazon". Morning Edition, National Public Radio, January 23, 2012
- Streitfeld, David, "Amazon, Up in Flames". The New York Times Blogs, February 8, 2012
- Nancy Pearl Poster, American Library Association. Accessed online March 19, 2007.
- Nancy Pearl garners national book honor, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 27, 2004.
- Nancy Pearl's website
- Nancy Pearl's Book Lust Community
- Librarian Action Figure page from Archie McPhee
- Interview with Nancy Pearl in Library and Information Science News
- Interview on the site of Western Washington University
- Audio lecture by Pearl on the site of the University of Michigan School of Information, archived at the Internet Archive