Nancy Pearl’s Love Affair with History: An Interview

tags: interview, Nancy Pearl

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles also have appeared in Crosscut, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, and others. His email: robinlindley@gmail.com. Click here to view a list of his other interviews.

Most know Seattle’s Nancy Pearl as a passionate advocate of reading and books who spent her professional life as a librarian. She shares her enthusiasm for books and writers on public radio and television, and at bookstores, libraries and schools across the country. And she’s the model for an iconic and powerful librarian action figure. .

Although many know Ms. Pearl for her tireless work in the world of books, they may not know that she’s also a devoted lover of the past with a master’s degree in history in addition to her master’s in library science.

Ms. Pearl’s bestselling books all reflect her wide knowledge of history, with a rich array of good reads on past lives and events in every volume. Her books include Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason; More Book Lust; Book Crush (reading for kids and teens); and Book Lust to Go (reading for travelers); as well as reader advisory guides for professional librarians: Now Read This; Now Read This II; and Now Read This III. And now Ms. Pearl is working on her first novel.

Among her many honors, Ms. Pearl was named “Librarian of the Year 2011” by the Library Journal and she received the annual award from the Women’s National Book Association for 2004. In her position as the Executive Director for the Seattle Public Library’s Washington Center for the Book, she created the “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book” program, which has been emulated by many U.S. cities. She lives in Seattle with her husband Joe Pearl. You can hear her book advice on National Public Radio, including on Seattle NPR affiliate KUOW-FM (94.9), and you can see her television program Book Lust on the Seattle Channel.

Ms. Pearl recently sat down at the Bryant Corner Café in northeast Seattle to discuss her affection for history and books set in the past.

Robin Lindley: When did you become interested in history and how did you come to pursue an advanced degree?

Nancy Pearl: I’ve been interested in history since I was a little girl. As many young readers do, I loved historical fiction, especially British history. One of my favorite authors then (and now, as I frequently reread her novels) is Rosemary Sutcliff, who wrote often about Roman Britain. Plus, my father fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Spanish Republicans, so that was a major historical event that permeated our household.

And then, when I was living in Stillwater, Oklahoma, my husband was teaching at Oklahoma State University and my daughters were three and four, I wanted something to do that would keep me thinking and learning. So I decided to go back to school. I got accepted into the history program at O.S.U. I’d take one class a semester and, after seven years, they said, “Oh my gosh, you have enough credits to get your masters degree.”
In that program we had a choice of two tracks. One was preparatory to getting a Ph.D. The second option was a terminal degree for people interested in teaching in junior or community colleges. You had to take two extra classes or write three big papers. I think I would have enjoyed getting a Ph.D. in history, but I couldn’t decide what I wanted to concentrate on, so I opted for the terminal degree. I ended up with 36 hours of graduate history courses.

It was very hard for me to focus on just one area or time period of history. It was at that time still very interested in the Spanish Civil War and I did one research paper on the British response and the debates in Parliament on whether to allow British men and women to legally go and fight there.

And, because I went to St. John’s in Annapolis, Maryland, for my first two years of college and that’s basically all history of one sort or another [with study of the Great Books], I was and am very interested in Greek and Roman history, as well as medieval history and philosophy. And I’m fascinated by World War I. It’s endless. So I could never pick a period to concentrate on.

Robin Lindley: Your Book Lust books reflect your wide interest and reading in every sort of history as well as biographies and historical fiction.

Nancy Pearl: That was a nice thing about writing the Book Lust books. I could include the books I had loved as a child or young adult as well as the books I was reading and loving at the time I was writing the books, so there is indeed a ton of history in them, especially the most recent one, Book Lust to Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds and Dreamers. I included many different countries and specific locations, and when you talk about a country, you have to start with its history.

The first Book Lust book is probably the one nearest to my heart because I thought it would be the only book of its type that I would write, so I tried to include every book I ever read and loved. And a lot of it is history, both fiction and nonfiction. Book Lust To Go was the book that in many ways was the most fun to write because of all the new stuff I was reading to see if I wanted to include it.

Robin Lindley: Your enthusiasm for history is palpable in your books. Are there a couple of history books that were important to you when you were younger that you’d recommend?

Nancy Pearl: There are just so many. I loved Thucydides and his retelling of the Peloponnesian Wars, which still resonates in contemporary times.. There are the philosophical differences between Sparta and Athens and the imperialistic push of Athens and what that meant and how views of that have changed. I still wonder how the course of history would have been changed had Pericles not died so early in the war. And something that keeps me up at night is thinking about the Melian debates and how Athens was moving from a democracy to something entirely more evil. There are certainly contemporary equivalents to that.

There’s a wonderful novel set in Greece in the period following the war called The Road to Sardis, by Stephanie Plowman. It was marketed when it was published as being for teens, but adults interested in that period of history would probably enjoy it as well. And Rosemary Sutcliff, who I mentioned earlier, wrote a terrific novel about Alcibiades, who changed sides several times during the war. It’s called The Flowers of Adonis.

I doubt that I’ll ever reread Thucydides but it when I first read it, it was a wondrous experience. Even though I had no money to spend in college, I bought the two volume boxed set of Thucydides in a wonderful translation by Thomas Hobbes. Thinking about Thucydides and the Greeks always makes me remember A. E. Housman’s poem [“The Oracles”] that ends “The Spartans on the sea-wet rocks sat down and combed their hair.”

One of the best books I’ve read about history is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. I remember how the soldiers [on the Western Front] could leave the war in France and go home for the weekend in England, just across the Channel. I think it made their sacrifice even more terrible that home was so near. So many have said that Britain’s descent to a second-class country was because the cream of that generation was killed in World War I: “The Lost Generation.”

And I’ve always been interested in India. One fascinating history—written just the way I think history ought to be written—is by Jan Morris, writing as James Morris before her sexual reassignment surgery. All three volumes are simply fascinating; I couldn’t put them down: Heaven’s Command, Pax Britannica and Farewell the Trumpets. This is the story of the growth of British imperialism in South Asia and the source of that 19th and early 20th century assertion that the sun never set on the British Empire.

As for historical fiction set in India, my favorites are The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Both are, in their own way, simply amazing.

Robin Lindley: Historians keep going back to Thucydides, who may be the first academic historian. Herodotus was earlier, but seemed to be more a reporter.

Nancy Pearl: Herodotus is wonderful in a different way. He takes you with him. Reading Herodotus, you are part of his journey and his sense of wonder about what he sees and hears is just palpable.

Robin Lindley: It must be a bit upsetting for you when you hear some say “I don’t like history. It’s dull. Boring. Not relevant.”

Nancy Pearl: I don’t hear it so much because I don’t spend a lot of time talking to people except specifically about books. But when people do say that I chalk it up to how we’re not doing a great job in our society teaching history, or giving people some historical context for current events.

So when people talk about the Palestinian-Israeli issue, I want to send them back to the book by David Fromkin, The Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Or the biography of Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations. Reading those two gives one a sense of that whole Victorian period of British imperialism and we can understand current events in a fuller, deeper manner

Robin Lindley: And there’s so much now on T. E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia,” and his role in the First World War and the history of the Middle East.

Nancy Pearl: An excellent one from last year is Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson, which is not just the story of T. E. Lawrence, but also what was happening with the Great Powers at the time. I love books like that, that help you get a sense of the world.

Robin Lindley: Are there books you might recommend to younger people to excite them about history? Some may see history as dull, dusty and only about distant men on pedestals.

Nancy Pearl: Howard Zinn’s The People History of the United States was a very influential book from the moment it was first published in 1980 that helps people look at history beyond those pedestals or the perspective of Mount Rushmore and to what happened to the ordinary person. The writing is extremely readable and it’s a fascinating look at history from a perspective that we don’t usually consider.

And when you talk about the Holocaust, it’s very hard to wrap your head around the deaths of six million people. What does that mean? But if you bring it down to one person one death, you bring it down to the human level, and then it’s hard to resist the call of history.

Robin Lindley: So you might recommend books like The Diary of Anne Frank?

Nancy Pearl: Yes, The Diary of Anne Frank would absolutely be one. And the Howard Zinn book has been rewritten for an audience of young people.

And a lot of people read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and became interested in American history and the Ingalls family travels from Wisconsin into what was then called Indian Territory in Missouri and then winding up with their homestead in South Dakota. Their trek west, I think, made a lot of people interested in history. Some of the books, particularly Little Town on the Prairie, are a bit difficult to read because of the depiction of Native Americans. I understand that the novelist Michael Dorris, who was himself Native American, would never let his children read those books.

And back when I worked as a children’s librarian, there was series of books on history by a man named Edwin Tunis. He wrote many wonderfully illustrated books on America’s past, and it’s a shame they’re not in print.

Robin Lindley: What great ways to ignite interest in history.

Nancy Pearl: Like teaching literature, when teaching history, you can’t present it as something that’s dead and over. It must be a living subject for people to be interested.

I read a lot of nonfiction, but I sometimes feel that fiction can present history more accurately than nonfiction can. When I think about what’s happening in Afghanistan or Pakistan, there are many books available now that detail our involvement in that part of the world, but to really understand it, I believe it helps to turn to fiction.

One novel that I thought illuminated a lot about contemporary Pakistan for me is Kamila Shamsie’s Broken Verses. And there’s Susanna Moore’s One Last Look, about colonial India and Afghanistan, an historical novel based on the life of Emily Eden, whose brother, 1st Earl Auckland, was the Governor-General of India between 1835 and 1842.

I can think of many authors I would go to. Another one is Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil, which brings the war in Afghanistan down to a human level. And it’s always fun to go back and read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. It was Kipling who called Afghanistan “the graveyard of empires.” I wonder how many people in the Departments of Defense and State were familiar with Kipling’s assessment. And remember, he wrote that long long before Russia’s failed war there. Amazing, right?

Robin Lindley: In reading history, how do you view biographies and memoirs?

Nancy Pearl: My feelings about memoirs are mixed. Some are good and some are not so good. I joke and say that the first two letters in memoir are M-E, which should tell us something about the genre, right?. But there are certainly some that I thoroughly enjoyed and learned a lot from. One is Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which relates her childhood and adolescence in an eccentric right-wing family. Her young husband volunteered and was killed in the Spanish Civil War and she never wavered in her devotion to lefty politics. .

I also loved The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, another wonderful memoir. And there’s another great memoir by Haven Kimmel called A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana.

A 2014 biography that I really enjoyed was Richard Norton Smith’s biography On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller. I just love that sort of political biography. Also, Robert Caro’s books on Lyndon Johnson are outstanding, of course. And Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism was great, but my favorite of her works has always been No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. Speaking of Eleanor Roosevelt, a terrific biography of her is Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s a dynamic portrait of a dynamic woman.

Robin Lindley: There’s a genre called historical fiction and then you have literary fiction that takes place in historical periods, such as Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel, or The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. How do you see these categories?

Nancy Pearl: For me, assigning genres complicates things for readers. All that slicing and dicing into categories isn’t useful. Some authors’ books are always going to be regarded as literary fiction, even if they really fall into another genre. Cormac McCarthy is a great example of this. The Road is clearly a dystopian novel, but we don’t shelve it in the science fiction section. And his All the Pretty Horses is a western, but you would never find it in the same shelves as Zane Grey or Louis L’amour.

The more I think about genre the more I dislike our use of it. There are some writers who use a historical period just as a convenient setting and it wouldn’t matter where the books were placed and the setting is just described in a few ways, but the setting is not part and parcel of the plot or the characters’ lives.

Robin Lindley: And genre books such as romance novels are often set in historical eras.

Nancy Pearl: Definitely. Georgette Heyer wrote books set primarily in the Regency period and she did scrupulous research for her books: the way people talked, the clothes they wore. Everything is accurate, down to the boots and swords and buggies and reticules. Her novel An Infamous Army takes place during the Battle of Waterloo.  Heyer’s novels are always dismissed by the literati as romances, but someone told me—I’m not sure it’s true but I wish it were—that An Infamous Army  was required reading in the British or the French Military Academy because of her scrupulously accurate descriptions of the battle.  In addition, the dialogue between the Duke of Wellington and his troops is taken directly from his diaries. Reading it is a great way to get a sense of what that period was about. 

Robin Lindley: Are there other history books from the past year or so that you particularly enjoyed and would recommend to readers?

Nancy Pearl: The Unsubstantial Air was a wonderful read about Americans who went to Canada, England, and France to become pilots in World War I. The author, Samuel Hynes, was a fighter pilot himself in World War II, probably one of the seminal events of his life, and is now a professor emeritus at Princeton in the English Department. He drew on letters and journals to write the stories of these young brave and, some would say, foolhardy men. Many of them were barely past boyhood when they enlisted.

Robin Lindley: And they flew very dangerous, primitive airplanes.

Nancy Pearl: Yes, death was always on their shoulder, waiting for them. They didn’t have a high survival rate. The majority of them came from Ivy League schools, but interestingly, it was also a way for those young men to meet people from came from different economic levels. In some ways, their going there enriched their environment. And it’s a different way of looking at World War I.

And I read George Packer’s book The Unwinding on the effects of the economic downturn on the lives of three different people, and that was quite good, too, although I still think his past book is from 2000, called Blood of the Liberals, a biography of his two grandfathers and how the notion of a political “liberal” has changed over the years. I recently re-read it and found it as interesting as I first did.

Robin Lindley: And are there Pacific Northwest historians or books of history you have enjoyed?

Nancy Pearl: Tim Egan is a wonderful non-fiction writer and so so smart. I’ve always found his op-eds in The New York Times both sensible and meaningful. Of all his books, the one I liked best was The Worst Hard Time, which I always think of as a counterpoint to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, with Egan focused on the experiences of those who didn’t leave for California during the Dust Bowl. I always think of Egan’s book in conjunction with Jonathan Raban’s Badlands, which is about the Easterners who came to settle in eastern Montana and the hardships they encountered. I’m also a big fan of Raban’s Passage to Juneau.

Robin Lindley: Would you like to add anything for readers about history?

Nancy Pearl: There’s just so much about history that we need to know to understand the present and, unfortunately, I think history is undervalued these days.

comments powered by Disqus