Building a Community of Readers: An Interview with Librarian and Author Nancy Pearl, Part II (Seattle, WA)

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Nancy Pearl. Photo by Marco Prozzo

The Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading to the center of American culture. The Big Read provides citizens with the opportunity to read and discuss a single book within their communities. Nearly 200 communities nationwide will participate in the Big Read for 2007. (For more about the Big Read, visit www.neabigread.org.)

In 1998, NEA Big Read Readers Circle member Nancy Pearl -- then a librarian at Seattle Public Library -- spearheaded the city's first communitywide reading program, one of the first in the country. Nearly a decade later, that program is still going strong, and is one of the models the NEA used to create the Big Read. This is part two of a two-part interview. (You can find part one in the Features Archives.)

NEA: From your experience, what suggestions do you have for encouraging more people to read?

Nancy Pearl: As a librarian, I have always believed that the reason that someone is alliterate is because they have not found the right book for them that can show them what the joys of reading truly are. I've always felt that with kids, if you have kids who are nonreaders, what you need to do is find that particular book that will meet them at just that moment and open up the world for them.

One of the ways you do that with kids is by tying the book into something that they're interested in. [Don't] narrowly define what books a child ought to read by some list of award winners, necessarily. If a child loves soccer or bicycle riding, there are books, both fiction and nonfiction, that will meet those needs. And once you show a child what the joy of reading is, I think that you've set them on the right path.

You can also set aside half an hour in the evening for the whole family to read together, that kind of modeling that parents can do. And not setting up reading as a punishment -- you're not saying "Well, you have to read 10 pages before you go out and play baseball." I mean, I hate that. Reading should be, reading is pleasure, and it should be presented as a gift that you're giving somebody, the opportunity to enter the world of another human being.

NEA: What about adults?

PEARL: With adults, I think, in general, it's the same kind of thing. Everybody enters the world of a book through a different doorway. If you're narrowing the list of what's acceptable reading, then you're not taking into account those different doorways through which people enter the world of books. According to my theory, the four doorways are story, character, setting, and language. A book like To Kill a Mockingbird has at least three of those doorways. So that's a book that many more people would like or have the possibility of liking, of enjoying and participating in fully.

NEA: You're a member of the Big Read Reader's Circle, which suggests titles to add to the Big Read library. When you're recommending and voting on Big Read books, what kind of things do you consider?

PEARL: For me, as I said, the bottom line should always be, "Is there enough in this book to bring people together for 45 minutes to talk about important issues?"
[I mean] important issues about what it means to be a human being -- how do you deal with grief? How do you deal with tragedy, which everybody faces in their life? I think that what we want these community reads to do is to show people that despite the surface differences among us, the diversity in terms of ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation or age or height or hair color, that we're all in our lives going to have to face some of these things. I find that you can talk about these important issues and it's non-threatening because the discussion is centered around a book.

NEA: If you had to, what book would you memorize?

PEARL: Now memorize is a really good way of putting it. 'Cause that's much better than taking what book would you take on a desert island. (laughter) I'd probably memorize The Oxford Book of American Poetry because I love poetry, and I think that would give me endless hours of pleasure while I'm waiting to be rescued from the desert island.

NEA: Is there anything else that you want to add or that you wish I'd asked you about?

PEARL: I just hope, in the interview somewhere you could put something in about my new book Book Crush. Book Lust and More Book Lust were recommended reading basically for adults -- fiction and nonfiction -- arranged in very quirky categories. Well, Book Crush is the same kind of book, but it's for kids and teens. It has a great cover, and it's just filled with terrific recommendations for parents and teachers and librarians and kids.