Saturday, January 8, 2011

Why Nancy Pearl Matters

I'm not very good with numbers. Never have been, and at my age, I feel safe in saying, I am unlikely now ever to be. When dear A. got us new cellphones a few years ago, he programed the simplest four-digit security code allowed. I never remember it, but then again, I almost never use the cellphone, or remember to turn it on. What does it say about me that I still carry our home phone number with me, although I call that number every day? That I've never memorized my Social Security number? That the work-husband, my sweet J., often remembers my computer passwords better than I do -- there being numbers involved, you see -- and that there have been days when I would never have been able to punch back in from lunch, without his help? One of my earliest promotions was from head-busboy to being a "night auditor," or bookkeeper, at a big hotel. Imagine. I could probably still do ten-key if I had to, though with my left hand, which drove my trainer mad, and only if I still had all night to check, and recheck, and recheck my figures. Never found me napping on that job, I can tell you.

I'm bad with dates as well: appointments, anniversaries, birthdays, and can never remember people's ages either, even my own. (This actually becomes something of a social advantage, I've found, as we all get older.) Having a completely unrelated conversation the other night, it occurred to me that I actually started working full time in a bookstore in 1987. Unless I've muddled the numbers again -- and I asked dear A. to check this for me, just to be sure, -- this means that next year I will have been in the book business for a quarter of a century. Can that be right? It doesn't seem so, but I've been assured, it's true.

Well, in my twenty four years then working in bookstores, I can think of only one person I have ever met who is regularly approached by complete strangers who, without introduction or so much as a handshake offered, walk right up and say, "Are you Nancy Pearl? Tell me what to read."

That is the sort of thing booksellers and librarians, at least in the beginnings of their working lives, always rather hope will happen. We all of us, when we are young, like to think that we will be asked someday to tell someone else what they should be reading, doing, thinking, wearing, wishing. Heaven forbid. One of the gravest disappointments of adult life is not coming to realize how infrequently one's opinion will ever be required, or even just solicited by way of being polite, but rather, the knowledge that one hasn't nearly the stock of ready opinions one remembers accumulating, and carefully conserving for later use, when one first ventured out into the world, most often with a mind dressed, draped and festooned with little else. Fashion plays a part. Often the first to go, when we leave home at last for good, are most of the opinions we inherited; the ones handed down, carefully wrapped in old onion-skin, and lovingly kept for our use by the generations that made us. What seemed durable, even venerable at home, seldom will last the length of that first long trip into independence. See, how shabby, threadbare, worn away? See, how the darns and patches, all that careful stitching by patient old hands, betrays the unfashionable antiquity of these things, in this, the first strong light of our first real freedom? Most of these then are discarded, discreetly, or thoughtlessly, before one has actually arrived anywhere really new. (One never feels the need of them again, until the time comes to clothe the next generation, and the wish to protect and preserve what is most precious overwhelms even the most rational of parents. The task, it is realized only too late, might have been made easier, had there been somewhere still about those best remembered, and now seemingly irretrievable comforts common to the most innocent memories of childhood; faith, affection, security, surety, and unstinting love. The miracle of course is that while one can and perhaps even should shake off what ill-suits the times, one need never fear losing the knowledge that comes to all but the unlucky few who never know what it is to rest against a mother or a father's heart.) As for most of the accumulated trash one picks up along the climb, believe me, though the young never will, most of this gets left behind well before half the ground one means to cover has been crossed. By the time the grade has leveled off, and well before, one hopes, there is any end to the journey in sight, of most of one's opinions, even those most treasured and carried longest, one now has little use, and advise, on even so pleasant a topic as books, can seem too impossibly complicated to offer with anything but reluctance, born of sad experience. How on earth should I know what anyone else should read?

The genius of Nancy Pearl is that she never answers such a question with anything other than another question, and then another, and another. Socrates, you know, did something similar.

First as a librarian, then as a lecturer and teacher, a writer and reviewer, and now as a radio and television personality, as well as an active participant in new social media, Nancy Pearl has made a unique career of being asked her opinion of books and answering nearly every question with another, even as she recommends, suggests, summarizes, introduces, connects, categorizes, laments, loves, loudly and softly, books, old and new, in every genre, for every age, on every topic from baseball to birds, fiction and history, biography and geography, and all the while enthusiastically denying that she has read nearly enough to say much of anything at all, though wasn't it kind of you to ask?

Nancy is so much a part of our bookstore, people often assume that she works there. She doesn't. Worse luck us. She is however ubiquitous about the place, even when she isn't there, getting coffee, meeting friends, taping her interviews for television, stopping by on her way to do a radio broadcast, talking to strangers about books. Her own books, the grand series of Book Lust and it's sequels, keep her place for her while she teaches and travels and lectures across the country and around the world. Not as good as having her actually about the joint, but the key to the success of her reading guides, the explanation, I think, of their continuing popularity with both the public and the trade, is that her writing is an extension of her conversation. Her books are not just a record of her personal preferences and reading recommendations, and not just anthologies of brief book reviews, but a frankly quite cunning reproduction in print of what it is to talk with her, one to one. Reading Nancy Pearl, as thousands of people have now discovered for themselves, is an open invitation, or so at least it seems to most people.

I have never, in all the years now that I have known the woman, heard her tell anyone what they should read. I have heard her asking people what they are reading and what have they read, why they wish to read more on a subject, what they liked best about a book she has been remarkably deft at discovering they have in common, where they are going on vacation, what they might like best about the book they've already bought, what books they might reread... I have heard her interview writers, and I have heard her interviewed in turn, though the only thing that seems to come of that is more questions from her, more books, more suggestions of what might be more interesting than anything, at least according to her, that she might have to say about herself.

What I have never heard Nancy Pearl say is that anyone was wrong to read a book they liked, even if she didn't, or that any book was bad, just because she did not care for it. I have tried to trap her into doing this. She often comes by the desk where I work on the sales floor of the bookstore, and we gossip and flirt and, of course, talk a bit about books. Should I ever manage to get her near to saying that a book was less than good, she makes a face that may be taken to mean distaste for either the book, or being asked such a direct question. Hard to tell, even after all these years. Whatever else she is then, she does not have the makings, even now, of a proper, serious literary critic. This is not for want of qualifications, or simply for reasons of modesty. Because of what I've come to understand must have been the very conscious decision she would seem to have made well before I met her, her mission in life might best be described as listening to other people, something proper, serious literary critics seemingly can not wait to stop doing so as, finally, to be heard. I suspect she has no more liking for the sound of her own voice than she has confidence in the immortality of her prose. She's wrong to say such things about herself; her voice, I can attest, is pleasant, her prose equally charming, but I must admit that it is all the easier to disagree with her because she will say so little in her own defense. (Imagine such a character writing, on why criticism matters, for a special edition of The New York Times Book Review!)

"Censure is willingly indulged, because it always implies some superiority: men please themselves with imagining that they have made a deeper search, or wider survey than others, and detected faults and follies which escape vulgar observation." said Dr. Johnson, of the critics. While I will never be among their number, I blush to think how apt that description is of even some of the little things I write about books, and literary criticism, here. Nancy Pearl would seem to feel not the slightest desire to criticize when she might as easily recommend, and get more accomplished, in that way, to encourage literacy, promote reading, preserve literature and, well, show everybody a good time, without much worrying about what might "escape vulgar observation." The closest she comes to vulgarity herself is her inexplicable affection for Country music on her Ipod when she jogs. (The kind of intimate detail that I flatter myself will make my small contribution here to her mounting collection of recent accolades, uniquely valuable. I have knowledge of a few other similar eccentricities I might yet reveal, but I may save those for another day. Let her worry.)

Nancy is a democrat. Whatever her politics, her philosophy, both personal and professional, is perhaps best summed up in that one word. Like many a shy soul who has found herself living an unexpectedly public life, her every instinct, I feel, is to apologize and withdraw before she embarrasses herself any further. Appearances to the contrary, she is not an inherently cheerful or outgoing person. She hates to travel. She dislikes crowds. For someone who now earns her living at podiums and behind microphones, she remains surprisingly reluctant to make oraculations or speechify, or even speak above an intimate pitch. Yet intimacies from her are rare enough, on any subject other than her reading, even among friends -- on whom she would not think to impose a confidence without blushing -- as to surprise even those of us who might with pride claim some personal acquaintance. Her moods she confesses easily enough, but then these are nothing she can hide. Her prospects at poker would be slight, as I doubt she could bluff a child of seven at a game of Old Maid. That said, whatever she might be feeling, however dim her view of the day before her, she will make herself go out into it, if for no other reason than because her schedule allows her few other options. She is, frankly, too damned busy to be as blue as she might be, if she didn't have to fly to Cleveland in an hour. And however pessimistic she might be about accomplishing a third of what she has set herself to do, however reluctantly she must suffer the company of other human beings, I have never known anyone, stranger, acquaintance or friend, to find her less than the best company in the world. It isn't the books she reads, by the way, in their hundreds, each year, that provides her companionship, however brief, with its charm, it is her, Nancy herself; with all her self-critical gloom, her maddening modesty, and her often unsuspected unhappiness, she believes absolutely in the value of other people, not simply what they know, or what they may read or have read that she hasn't, but in the shared humanity that makes everyone if not interesting to her, as she isn't some saintly fool, then no less worthy than she of a kind word, a moment's attention, respect. Of all the friends I've made in the world of books, among booksellers, writers, librarians, customers and readers, I can honestly say, I've never met anyone who better represents the potential of books to bridge the gaps between us than the little "retired" librarian from Seattle, and my friend, Nancy Pearl.

Influence can be a dangerous thing, as events so recently in the news would seem only too sadly to confirm. Most who aspire to it may rightly be suspected of being unworthy to wield it. Books can be said to have a better influence, some of 'em, than even their most devoted readers, even their authors, may fully understand. E. M. Forster said, “I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet gone ourselves.” To this I would only add that when we are lucky enough to meet along the way someone willing to offer any assistance she might in helping us to any book we might need, even without knowing it, we ought to recognize by now how rare a friend we've found in such a one. Nancy Pearl has made more friends than she knows, by doing just that. It is high time we thanked her.

Thanks, Miss Fancy. And thanks for the books. As the great Sonny James used to sing, "That's why I love you like I do."


  1. This made me cry. You have captured the importance and the wonder and the sheer realness of Nancy so well. As articulate as ever, Brad.

  2. Oh what a gift for portraiture you have, Brad: you've done great justice to your beguiling, subject. I didn't cry, but I sighed.

  3. It's Nancy's birthday tomorrow, by the way!

  4. beautiful. on the button. also, this is why i work in the kids' section. i get repeat customers telling me they loved what i recommended, and what else should i read? (kids are easier to impress than grownups.)

  5. And thanks, David, for all the linkage!