Building a Community of Readers : An Interview with Librarian and Author Nancy Pearl (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.

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 one of a two-part interview. (Look for part two in the August features.)

NEA: How did you develop "If All Seattle Read the Same Book?"

NANCY PEARL:  It really arose because we got a grant from the [Wallace Foundation] to develop audiences for literary programs. I think that one of the roles of libraries is to broaden and deepen a person's experience with the work of literature, which is what I think that a program like "If All Seattle Read the Same Book" does. My main criteria always for picking a book when I was there was, "Does it make for a good discussion?"

I also thought it was really important that we focus on authors who weren't well-known, mid-list authors, if you will. It was always contemporary authors because we wanted to bring them in and make that part of the experience.

The thing about Seattle that makes it unique is that there are so many author programs going on that you could go to two or three author programs a day at various bookstores and never run out. So we needed to think of something that would set this project apart from all the other author programs in Seattle. That was the book discussion aspect.

NEA: Why was it important that the program focus on everyone reading the same book?

PEARL: It was important to me that we all read the same book because I think that we live in a world that is so fractious and divided that it's very easy to spend a day or more never talking to anybody, perhaps, outside your family about anything besides "Pass the milk." I wanted to bring people together. The beauty of the library is that once you walk in the door, everybody is equal; the riches of the library are available to everybody. I wanted to build a community of readers, in that sense.

NEA: What was your expectation for the program?

PEARL: We knew that people would come for book discussions. And we were convinced that the book that we had chosen for the first year was a great book and that the author would do a great job. We also knew we'd do the program for three years. But this was just one of a number of library programs that we did. We never expected that anything like [its popularity] would happen. In fact, nothing would have happened had the Chicago Library not picked up on the idea and said [in a New York Times article], "Oh we learned about this from Seattle."

The lovely thing was that [Chicago] went their total own way. The great thing about the program is that the core idea is fabulous and then every community can adapt it to meet their needs.

NEA: What's the harm if people stop reading?

PEARL:  I think reading a book is one of the few ways that we can enter the world of another person. All those statistics in Reading At Risk, which showed that readers were more generous in their charity giving and did more for the community, I think that's directly due to the fact that when you read a book, you are literally leaving your own life and entering a different world. I always like to say in my talks that, in this world, we're given one life to live. But through books and reading, we can have any number of lives, and we can go anywhere, and we can do anything. And we can be anyone. That getting out of ourselves is such an important aspect of what reading does for us. And it's so valuable.