Editor’s Note: Just in time for chilly November and December days and nights, this Beachcomber column, which ran frequently throughout 2020 and early 2021, is back.
Anyone who reads widely is likely to know Nancy Pearl.
Pearl is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio and is the 2021 recipient of the National Book Society’s prestigious Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. Her website, nancypearl.com, is full of great book recommendations and other reading-related information, and in 2003 she published “Book Lust,” which remains a classic read for bookworms.
So I was happy to see Vashon Center for the Arts host an event featuring Pearl, along with former KUOW journalist Steve Scher, on Oct. 24. When it came time for audience participation, inevitably I posed to her the question that prompted the creation of this column: which three (or so) books would you take to a desert island? I couldn’t wait to hear the answer from a woman who has quite possibly done more reading than most of us put together. She has made innumerable recommendations over the years — but which are her favorites?
People are often flustered by the question and sometimes tell me either that it’s impossible to say, or that they need to think about it. And I grant you it’s fundamentally unfair to pounce on someone and put them on the spot like that, given the uncountable array of good books that line the shelves of the world’s libraries. Still, given her occupation as a librarian, I figured Pearl might have given more thought to this than most. Turns out she had.
Here then, are Nancy Pearl’s books to grab from a sinking ship…
First, the three volumes of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” This is also one of my choices, and some readers will remember that last winter I wrote a column on Tolkien, and told the story of how his greatest work came to be published. That grand, sweeping saga of Middle Earth remains, for me — and I’m guessing also for Pearl, because she picked it — one of the best-sustained long tales in the English language. I don’t know how many times she’s read this classic; I’ve gone through it at least half a dozen times, including once when I read the whole thing aloud to my wife.
Next, the “Oxford Book of Poetry.” This also matches one of my selections, though in my case I’d opt for an anthology of poems of my own choosing … heavy on the romantics, and with a fair chunk of humorous verse in there also.
Pearl’s third choice surprised me: Georgette Heyer’s novel “The Grand Sophy.” Despite being English myself, I can’t say I’d given a thought to Heyer for well over 40 years, and then only because I vaguely recall my mother reading her.
Heyer revived the so-called “Regency romance” genre, novels of manners set in Britain during the early 19th century; she was heavily influenced by Jane Austen. Pearl’s enthusiastic endorsement of Heyer’s writing had me ordering the book right after the event, and last week I devoured it in a few days. Sophy Stanton-Lacy is one of the more delightful characters to grace a romance novel: kind, funny, fiercely independent and endlessly resourceful — in short, as smart as Austen’s Lizzie Bennett, and twice as fun. The climactic and chaotic scene at the novel’s conclusion was hilariously farcical. I wouldn’t add Heyer to my desert island list, but “The Grand Sophy” is a tremendously entertaining read.
A final title, tossed in at the end of Pearl’s list without comment, was “Lonesome Dove,” Larry McMurtry’s novel of the Old West. The winner of the 1986 Pulitzer prize for fiction, it spawned an immensely popular TV miniseries.
McMurtry himself was confused and somewhat disappointed by the popular view of his work, relative to what he had set out to accomplish.
“It’s hard to go wrong if one writes at length about the Old West,” he wrote, “still the phantom leg of the American psyche. I thought I had written about a harsh time and some pretty harsh people, but, to the public at large, I had produced something nearer to an idealization; instead of a poor man’s “Inferno,” filled with violence, faithlessness and betrayal, I had actually delivered a kind of “Gone with the Wind” of the West, a turnabout I’ll be mulling over for a long, long time.”
Someone asked Pearl for her favorite books set in the Pacific Northwest. The first was non-fiction, Blaine Harden’s “Murder at the Mission,” the story of (to quote the jacket) “a missionary, a murder, a tribe, and the myth that shaped the American West.” For fiction, she gave Ken Kesey’s classic novel, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” a sprawling and almost mythically symbolic story of one family in an Oregon logging town.
One of the more interesting aspects of the evening was Pearl’s response to someone asking about how best to run a book club. She counseled against choosing best-sellers for club members to read.
“Best-sellers are usually plot-driven,” she said.
Pearl prefers books that delve more into characters.
“You might instead pick a book whose title is the name of one of the characters,” she counseled. She also warned against beginning any book club discussion with the inevitable “How did you like the book?” This tends to immediately polarize opinions; instead, ask questions about people’s interpretation of the content, or about specific aspects of the book or the writing. Ask whether people liked the book only at the end of the discussion, she suggested.
One example of a first question to ask, she suggested, is “What does the book’s title mean?” She then related an amusing story regarding a book club consisting mostly of women who were Boeing engineers; they had just read Wallace Stegner’s outstanding novel “Angle of Repose” and, Pearl noted, “These women knew literally what that meant in engineering terms. For them,” she laughed, “the title’s metaphor had absolutely no meaning.”
So that’s Nancy Pearl’s desert island booklist, with a few others thrown in. What’s yours? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phil Clapham is a retired whale biologist and writer who lives on Maury Island. His new novel “Jack,” a romantic comedy narrated by a dog who lives with a professional dominatrix, is available on Amazon under his pseudonym, Phillip Boleyn.