Building a Community of Readers

An Interview with Librarian and Author Nancy Pearl

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Nancy Pearl

NEA Big Read Readers Circle member Nancy Pearl. Photo by Marco Prozzo

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. In this interview, Pearl shares the genesis of Seattle's program and affirms why it's so important for Americans to read. (Read the full interview on the NEA Web site: www.arts.gov/fea- tures/index.htm.)

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 criterion always for picking a book when I was there was, Does it make for a good discussion?

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

NANCY 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's the harm if people stop reading?

NANCY 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.