‘America’s Librarian’ knows why people turn to libraries in times of need

Nancy Pearl, possibly America’s best-known librarian and recommender of books, shares her thoughts on choosing what to read, and when to stop reading.

Susan Doupe/Courtesy of Nancy Pearl
Nancy Pearl

It’s not every librarian who has an action figure modeled after her. But Nancy Pearl, who was honored at the National Book Awards on Nov. 17, comes to her superhero status by her encyclopedic knowledge of books and powerfully engaging recommendations in almost every form of media. In 1998, Ms. Pearl launched a program at the Seattle Public Library called “If All Seattle Read the Same Book,” which led to the worldwide group-reading phenomenon known as One Book, One City. 

In 2009, Ms. Pearl’s ability to connect readers with the right book gained a wide following when she published “Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason,” which became a surprise hit. More recent work includes “Book Lust” sequels, a novel, and a collection of author interviews. 

Known as “America’s Librarian,” Ms. Pearl received the 2021 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community for her work in expanding audiences for reading. Past recipients include poet Maya Angelou and NPR’s “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross.

Browsing with Ms. Pearl is a book lover’s dream, like stargazing with Neil deGrasse Tyson or strolling a farmers market with Alice Waters. Practically every shelf in the University Book Store in Seattle one recent morning sparked conversations. Her thoughts on Sigrid Nunez? She’s well known for 2018’s “The Friend,” but Ms. Pearl says her earlier novel about Virginia Woolf’s pet marmoset, Mitz, is “just marvelous.” Hilary Mantel? “What she can do so well is present these despicable characters ... and make you not only admire them, but fall in love with them,” she says.

So, how does possibly the world’s best-known librarian decide what to read?

Ms. Pearl says she searches out “books with characters that I can’t forget, and writing that just makes you put down the book and say, ‘How could he have thought, or she have thought, to put these words together in that way?’” 

She doesn’t discount any title based on genre or perceived intellectual heft. “Somebody said that we judge genre fiction by the worst of what’s there and we judge literary fiction by the best of what’s there.” 

She also suggests what she calls a “four doorways” approach to assessing new titles based on story, character, setting, or language (the actual writing). She’d like to see books categorized by “four doorways” just as they are by the Dewey Decimal System. 

Does she ever consider not finishing a book? 

Ms. Pearl coined the Rule of 50, which offers a handy formula for deciding when to move on from a book. If you are under 50 years old, give the book 50 pages before either committing to read it or choosing to set it aside. If older, “which is when time gets shorter,” subtract your age from 100. The result is the number of pages you should read before deciding to move on. 

What’s next for her? 

In 2022, Ms. Pearl will be the subject of a children’s picture-book biography, bringing her career full circle. Although she no longer works in a library, she’s thinking about the role that libraries will play in the future. She would like to see an emphasis on literacy and on the joy of reading, which she says are still essential in an age in which libraries are called upon to fulfill responsibilities far beyond their core mission – from social services to lending musical instruments. Yet she understands better than most why people turn to libraries – and librarians – when in need.

“You become a librarian because you want to make the world a better place,” she says. “And so what’s needed, you try to do."

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