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“When Love and Work Are One” - Nancy Pearl Talks about her New Book Series, and Much More

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I recently had the pleasure of talking to Nancy Pearl, whose new series Book Lust Rediscoveries launched this week. It's a thrill to be able to ask her some questions (I compare it to being a basketball fan and getting to talk to LeBron James). So if you're interested in her new series, or how to get your kid to read, or how she got on the path to being the world's most famous librarian, read on:

Chris: When did you first get the idea to do a selection of out-of-print books?

Nancy Pearl: I’ve wanted to do a series like this for years and years. When Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason was published in 2003, I talked to the folks at Sasquatch (who had published Book Lust) about doing a series called “Book Lust Rediscoveries” (sound familiar?), but they decided that they really couldn’t take it on. So the years went by and I kept busy writing the Book Lust series, but still feeling peculiarly hampered in doing my radio program because there were so many books I couldn’t talk about because they were out of print and listeners were annoyed whenever I tried to sneak one in because they were difficult to find and usually quite pricey. Then, when Sasquatch Books published Book Lust To Go in 2010, I raised the idea of Book Lust Rediscoveries again. For perfectly understandable reasons, Sasquatch didn’t want to do it. When I was telling an old friend (who works in New York for a large publishing company) about how much I really wished that many of my old favorite novels were back in print, she introduced me, via email, to her good friend Victoria Sanders, of Victoria Sanders and Associates. Victoria (bless her!) thought BLR was a wonderful idea and agreed to represent me for the project. I was thrilled that Amazon Publishing was as excited about BLR (as we call it) as I was.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Chris: How did you pick the books in this series?

Nancy Pearl: It’s really easy to answer how I selected the books – they’re all novels that I’ve gone back to and reread time and time again. I own every one of them, all in beat-up condition, most of them acquired at used bookstores, library book sales or garage sales. In many ways, BLR is a totally selfish project, because what I really wanted (and want) is to own beautiful copies of each of these novels.

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Chris: How many books will there be in the series? Why is A Gay and Melancholy Sound the first book?

Nancy Pearl: There’ll be at least a dozen novels, all published between 1960 and 2000. It’s so fitting that A Gay and Melancholy Sound is the first book being published. First of all, it’s the oldest of the titles that are going to be reissued – it was first published in 1961, which is when I read it. It’s a book that’s incredibly important to me, perhaps my favorite novel ever (although it makes me nervous to say that, because I want to add, oh no, there’s also this one and that one). Probably it’s best to say that without a doubt it’s one of my ten favorite novels.

Chris: Other than being out of print, what qualities connect these books?

Nancy Pearl: I’ve thought about what these books have in common (besides the facts that they’re all out of print and that I love them all) a lot. Although they’re incredibly diverse in setting (from a small town in central New York State to Siberia to Oklahoma to Boston to Montana to small town New Hampshire), and have characters as different as cowboys (both Russian and American), stock traders, mediums, and high school girls in Butte, Montana, what they have in common is that they’re all character-driven novels. And since voice is incredibly important to me in the books I read, the voices narrating these novels (mostly first-person narrators, but not always) are strong and distinctive and immediately draw the reader in.

Chris: Tell us a little about yourself. What was it that directed you to a life dedicated to books?

Nancy Pearl: I spent most of my childhood and adolescence at the Detroit Public Library branch closest to my house, primarily to get away from a not very happy home. The librarians – Miss Whitehead and Miss Long – were the nicest people I knew. It’s due to them, especially Miss Whitehead, that I became a children’s librarian, because I wanted to give other children the gift that she gave me –the wonderful world of books and reading. I knew when I was 10 that I wanted to become a children’s librarian, and I only wavered from that very briefly. In my senior year of college I became infatuated with Noam Chomsky’s theory of transformational grammar. I thought maybe I should go to MIT in order to study with him and get a PhD, but then reason prevailed. I really don’t have that kind of mind and would never have been happy in academia. Robert Frost talks in “The Death of the Hired Man,” I think, about “when love and work are one” and I’m one of the few people I know who’s been able to make a career doing exactly what I love. Of course, it took a while to get to this place...

Chris: What books do you remember loving as a child?

Nancy Pearl: Oh gosh, there are so many. The classic children’s picture books, of course, like Make Way for Ducklings, but as an older child, the science fiction novels of Robert Heinlein were huge favorites. The first book I read by him was Space Cadet and I remember where I was in the library when I picked it up and started reading it. I can still tell you scenes from it that made a huge impression on me, especially when it came to notions of honor and truth. But, really, all those Heinlein books, like Between Planets, Red Planet, Time for the Stars – I still suggest them to parents looking for books to entice their sons who are reluctant readers. But Miss Whitehead introduced me to Mary Poppins, The Wind in the Willows (which I didn’t like as a child but now appreciate), The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books, and the Edward Eager fantasies, Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse. I could go on for pages, here, and, of course, I did, in Book Crush: For Kids and Teens.

Chris: You are probably the most famous children’s librarian ever. What would you say to people who want their kids to read?

Nancy Pearl: I suppose I would say that kids won’t enjoy reading until they find a book that entrances them, that shows them what books are all about. And that they need to see their parents enjoying reading, too.  I like the idea of a family setting aside a half hour each evening for everyone to read together – whether it’s each family member reading his or her own book, or sharing listening to one book. And enthusiasm goes a long way in getting kids to read.

Chris: By all accounts, you are an extremely busy person. When do you read? Where do you do your best reading?

Nancy Pearl: I basically try to read whenever I’m not working on something else. I try hard to set aside the afternoons and evenings to read. My husband is the person who makes this life of mine possible. Not only is he a wash-and-wear kind of guy, very self-sufficient, but also he’s much better than I am at things like cleaning the house, and cooking. I have a very comfortable chair in my living room and that’s usually where I sit and drink tea and read. People always think I’m joking when I say this, but it’s absolutely true that I don’t have much of a life outside of the books I read.

Chris: Do you own an e-reader? Where do you fall on that discussion?

Nancy Pearl: I own two different e-readers. Let me say that I love all the possibilities that all this new technology offers us. I’m not smart enough to be considered a technology geek – I don’t understand anything about how it works – but I love what it makes possible. My favorite day of the week to read the NY Times is Thursday, because that’s when they have the Personal Technology section. And when I was traveling so much, the thought of an e-reader was just heavenly – I mean, not to carry 6 or 8 books every time you went somewhere for more than a day? What’s not to embrace in that thought? And when I did a hiking trip in Wales and Devon last summer, all I took was an e-reader, nothing paper at all. So easy (and lightweight, to boot). But, all that being said, the more I read on an e-reader the less I liked it, and now I REALLY don’t enjoy it. I miss holding the book, the heft of it, and seeing the particular shade of white of the pages, and admiring the font, and liking (or not) the cover. I would never have said that aesthetics of the print culture are important to me, but in fact that’s what’s missing (for me) in an e-reader.

Chris: What in-print books have you read recently that you’ve loved?

Nancy Pearl: I loved Carol Anshaw’s Carry the One, but I would urge people who read it and like it not to miss her earlier novel, Lucky in the Corner. Ditto Stuart Dybek’s When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man and Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! . Also Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker (I was a huge huge fan of his The Gone-Away World, which has a positively brilliant twist – one line that changed everything you thought you knew about the novel). With regard to nonfiction, I thought Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention was terrific, also Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. And House of Prayer No 2just blew me away. Do you want me to go on? The best way to find out what I’m reading and enjoying is to follow me on Twitter – I do one tweet a day, usually talking about a book I like – Nancy_Pearl.

Chris: What other interesting projects have you got up your sleeve?

Nancy Pearl: I’d like to do a series of children’s reprints, but I’m finding that it’s going to be more complicated to do than the adult novels were, for a variety of reasons. And I’d like to get back to my own writing, which I haven’t paid attention to for a really long time.

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