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The Ideal Librarian

“Promiscuous Reader” Nancy Pearl Weighs In

Editor’s Note: Nancy Pearl and I recently chatted about the future of her profession, the newly launched Book Lust Rediscoveries series, and her own guilty reading pleasures. Here’s her end of our conversation.

I define a good book as being any book that someone likes, which means that good as an adjective is quite fluid. When I’m on Morning Edition, I hope I make it clear that I’m recommending books that I like. I believe that no two people ever read the same book—we all read different versions because we bring ourselves and all of our experiences to the reading of a book. Paul Auster wrote in one of his essays that he always tries to leave space for readers in his books, that he believes that the reader and he are collaborating on writing the book that the reader reads. That’s a very loose quote! But I believe that’s what we readers do with the books we love.

I’m a lifelong reader who might be best described as a promiscuous reader (author Carrie Brown once described herself that way, and I’ve felt it was a perfect description of me, too). I have always read for escape, be it through literary fiction, science fiction, mysteries, and all sorts of nonfiction. When I was thirteen, the children’s librarian of the Parkman branch of the Detroit Public Library took me to the adult section and introduced me to the librarians there. It was pretty much a no-turning-back event.

With my low batting average suggesting books to my husband, Joe, he would likely trade me for another librarian given the opportunity. But there are a few that we both like: Nick Harkaway’s (son of John le Carré) The Gone-Away World and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. My favorite nonfiction genre is social science. I loved The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood by David Simon and Edward Burns, and David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, also The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright. Guilty reading pleasure: The Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger, beginning with Soulless. It’s a delightful melding of fantasy and romance, set in a Steampunky Victorian England. And midcentury British women writers Elizabeth Cadell and D.E. Stevenson are my equivalent of comfort food.

I’m a gadget person. The day the third iteration of the iPad came out, I had to go buy one. Because I usually take six or seven books on a weekend trip—you never know when the mood will change—I really wanted to love reading eBooks. And they’re very convenient, especially when you’re travelling. But the more I read on them, the more I dislike the experience. I recently had the this experience: I’m a big fan of local [Seattle] writer Jim Lynch. His new book is Truth Like the Sun, and when I tried reading it first on my Kindle, and then on my iPad, I wasn’t enjoying it. But when I began to read it as a print book, I loved it. I never realized how much I appreciate holding a book, the weight and the creaminess of the paper, the different fonts. I had always assumed it was all about the text. But reading, for me and for many others, is an aesthetic experience as much as anything else.

Up-and-coming writers I’m excited about now are Emily St. John Mandel, who has three books (maybe she’s already arrived, actually), and Sara Levine, who wrote Treasure Island!!! I love first novels. I suppose it’s the promise of what’s there, and what’s to come in subsequent books. I do try always to look for under-the-radar books that my audience will probably miss because the publisher can’t devote enough to the marketing budget.

I am very excited to be doing the Book Lust Rediscoveries series with Amazon Publishing. I work with a wonderful editor, Alan Turkus, who loves the series as much as I do. My agent shopped the project around to every major New York publisher, but no one else wanted to take it on. And I can understand why—it’s a huge amount of work. None of the novels are in the public domain, so it means negotiating with all the copyright holders of each title (in one case it was the three daughters of the deceased author). Amazon understood the project and was excited about bringing these long out-of-print titles back to a new audience. There will be twelve books over two years. I write an introduction, discussion questions, and offer a list of further reading for each of the titles. All of these novels have been high on my list of favorite books ever since I first read them.

One of the things I really enjoy besides reading is the teaching I do at the University of Washington’s Information School. I teach two classes to students who want to be librarians: Adult Services in the Public Library, which includes a lot about putting people together with books that they’d like, book talking, leading book groups, writing annotations, and creating displays. The other class is Genre Fiction for Adult Readers—great fun. A portion of the proceeds from the Book Lust Rediscoveries will go to an endowment my husband and I set up at the ISchool for students who want to become public librarians.

My job is pretty close to perfect. Being a librarian is both personally fulfilling and helps to make the world a better place. I do think librarians need to be more proactive now, though. We need to do an even better job helping people understand that that libraries are not only somewhere to find information (it’s certainly important but not the only thing we do), but are also places to find a good book and a community where books and reading are valued. And, rather than bending what we do to accommodate available technology, librarians need to use technology to improve what we already do. Primarily, we need to be about customer service, building relationships with users. We need to model our customer service attitude on stores like Nordstrom, where the salespeople give you great service, whether you’re buying a pair of socks or a designer dress.