"Each time I begin a new book," she writes in the introduction to Book Lust, her 2003 compendium of book recommendations, "there's the very real chance that this is a book that I will fall in love with."
If the lists contained in Book Lust and its sequel Book Lust 2 are any indication, Pearl's affairs with the written word have been passionate and many. Hundreds of titles are not only organized into such lists as "Me, Me, Me: Autobiographies and Memoirs" and "Romance Novels: Our Love is Here to Stay," but are also neatly summed up in a sentence or two of Pearl's crisply entertaining prose.
For the uninitiated, it's not an exaggeration to say that Nancy Pearl is something of a cultural phenomenon. (She'll have three Get Lit appareances, April 19-21.) In addition to the two Book Lust books there is also a calendar, a Web site, a journal and even -- courtesy of the fine folks at Accoutrements/Archie McPhee -- a librarian action figure modeled after Pearl that comes with not only a stack of plastic literature but "amazing shushing action!" Where her work was previously performing readers' advisory services for Seattle Public Library, the energetic and feisty Pearl currently keeps a schedule packed with speaking engagements, radio appearances for NPR and Book Lust book signings.
"I had no idea it would take off like this," she says. "Nobody decides to go into librarianship to become an action figure. In fact, people sometimes enter the field because they don't want to be in the limelight. I'm not an extrovert, but at the libraries and bookstore where I worked, I was often the one who didn't mind talking to groups, and I was always pretty outgoing where books were concerned."
Pearl found her love of reading at an early age. In Book Lust, she describes growing up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Detroit with a family of readers; while her childhood was book-filled, it wasn't necessarily happy. "Mine was a family that today would be labeled dysfunctional," she writes. "All I knew then was that I was deeply and fatally unhappy."
Seeking refuge in her local library, she discovered not only hundreds of self-contained and presumably happier worlds, but also a rare breed of professional devoted to sharing those worlds. From the age of 10 on, Pearl knew she wanted to be a librarian.
Aside from a brief flirtation in college with the idea of studying linguistics at MIT with Noam Chomsky, Pearl remained true to her calling and worked in three "great library systems" -- Detroit Public Library, Tulsa City-County Library and Seattle Public Library -- as well as spending some as the manager of an independent bookstore in Tulsa. While serving as the director of the Washington Center for the Book, she launched the now famous and often imitated "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book" campaign (which now just goes by "Seattle Reads ..." and has numerous counterparts all across America, including one in Spokane). Currently, Pearl has a monthly TV show, "Book Lust With Nancy Pearl," on the Seattle Channel, does regular reviews for Library Journal, Booklist and other publications, regularly updates her "currently reading" book list on www.nancypearl.com and teaches "Book Lust 101" at the University of Washington. Pearl has witnessed how perceptions of the librarians' career change from "Realm of the Uptight Spinsters" to one of the hotter and more desirable careers out there.
"What's interesting about how librarianship is changing is that because there's so much of it now that is not specifically book-related, it's attracting a lot of 'information science' people -- people who are extremely tech-savvy but are not necessarily readers. There are both good and bad aspects to this -- access to information is extremely important in our society -- but I'm not sure that in the end it's the be-all and end-all of what this profession is about," she muses. "What concerns me in all of this is that we'll lose that whole notion of the library as a place of lifelong learning, which is a very different thing from 'information.' The library still needs to be a place where people go for not only information but to discover good things."