When Nancy Pearl meets somebody new, she always asks, "What are you reading?" The retired librarian and self-professed "readaholic" cheerfully admits that she doesn't spend much time talking about gardening, housework, or the weather. "Books are really all I can talk about."
These days she is talking about books to bigger and bigger audiences. She has already written two volumes of recommended reading: "Book Lust" (2003) and "More Book Lust" (2005). Last month found the petite, gregarious woman with sensible shoes on NBC's "Today" show as the featured author, chatting about books with mystery writer Lisa Scottoline and substitute anchor Natalie Morales.
One of the things Ms. Pearl likes best is to draw readers' attention to older titles, books that were overlooked when they first came out, or even books that are out of print. She spends a lot of time browsing the shelves at used book stores. "Any book someone has not read is a new book to them," she says.
Pearl mentions more than 3,000 books in "Book Lust" and "More Book Lust." She groups them under hundreds of categories with quirky headings such as "Three-Hanky Reads" or "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover" about good books with off-putting covers. There is even "Parrots," books in which parrots feature in the story.
Pearl also tries to resurrect interest in authors who she thinks are underappreciated or may be fading out of view under the category "Too Good to Miss." They include such writers as Hamilton Basso, Nevil Shute, P.G. Wodehouse, Elinor Lipman, P.F. Kluge, and Jane Gardam.
Pearl is eclectic in her tastes, promoting books that range from classics to thrillers, from "chick lit" to science fiction. She has a penchant for first novels. About the only categories she doesn't particularly like are "True Crime," which she finds too scary, and short stories - but she includes both of these groupings anyway.
Her books have become improbable bestsellers. "Book Lust" has sold more than 100,000 copies; "More Book Lust," which came out in May, has already sold about 50,000. The books also represent a successful venture into national marketing for Sasquatch, a Seattle publisher previously known more for regional titles - local restaurant guides and the like.
"Book Lust" had scarcely rolled off the presses before Pearl began having second thoughts about her choices. "I started waking up in the middle of the night filled with horror that I had left out, say, Bill Bryson. Also, I was getting e-mails from people suggesting new categories." The upshot: "More Book Lust." She sees it as a companion book, not a sequel.
Pearl says she is a strong believer that no one should ever finish a book they are not enjoying, no matter how popular or well reviewed it is. "Believe me," she says, "nobody is going to earn any points for slogging their way through a book they aren't enjoying but think they ought to read." She finishes probably one book for every five she starts.
She expounds what she calls the "50 page" rule: If a book doesn't grab you in the first 50 pages, put it down and try something else. Life is short, and there are many books to read. (She often returns to finish books she set aside. Reading enjoyment is as much a matter of the reader's mood as it is the style and content of the book, she says.)
Now she has turned her attention to a new version of "Book Lust" aimed more toward children and young adults. She is going back to her roots as a children's librarian. Growing up in Detroit, Pearl spent much of her childhood and early adolescence in public libraries, and she fondly remembers how the librarians steered her to discover new worlds through books.
That was the start of a career as a librarian in Detroit, Tulsa, Okla., and the Seattle Public Library, from which she retired last year. Today, when not speaking at book clubs and library associations or writing about books, she teaches a course called "Book Lust 101" at the University of Washington's Information Science School.
The course teaches future librarians how various genres work and what draws people into a book. (The short answer: story, character, style.) She sees her course as a way to balance the scramble to turn libraries into information and data-retrieval services in the Internet era.
The focus on data is fine and necessary, she says, but librarians should never lose sight of their fundamental mission - a message she would inscribe in granite over schools that teach library science - to press a good book into the hands of a patron and say, "Read this."
1. Confessions of a Teen Sleuth by Chelsea Cain. This book, which is the "true" story of Nancy Drew's life, made me laugh out loud.
2. Broken Verses by Kamila Shamsie. Set in contemporary Pakistan, this novel is about mothers and daughters, life in a repressive society, and falling in love. It is gorgeously written with an unpredictable ending.
3. The Cobweb by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George is just the kind of thriller I like best - intelligent, complicated, and rooted in contemporary events.
4. Son of the Rough South by Karl Fleming. Newsweek's former civil rights reporter tells the story of his life, beginning with his childhood in a North Carolina orphanage during the Depression.
5. The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. If you're a Jane Austen fan, you must try Heyer. Begin with this one, in which Sophy, the spirited, intelligent, and beautiful heroine, finds her work cut out for her when she goes to live with relatives and discovers that they have many problems that need solving - which only she can do.