Books

Q&A: Nancy Pearl on travel writing and books to go

Mary Ann Gwinn
The Seattle Times (MCT)

SEATTLE — Nancy Pearl's fans know her by her voice. Last week I waited in line for espresso with America's favorite librarian; when Pearl ordered coffee, the woman next to us swiveled left and lasered in on Pearl's warm, low-pitched voice.

"Are you ... that NPR lady?" said Pearl's admirer — she'd know that voice anywhere.

Seattle-based Pearl reviews books for National Public Radio, travels the world talking about books and writes her own. Her latest is "Book Lust to Go — Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers" (Sasquatch, $16.95). I asked her about travel, great travel writers and her own reading habits.

Q: In "Book Lust to Go," you say you hate to travel, but you seem to spend a lot of time doing just that.

A: Since I left the (Seattle Public) library in 2004, I have spent a lot of time traveling. For someone as anxious as I am, traveling is hard. I get homesick for Seattle and my house.

I've had some great times. Two or three years ago I went to Estonia for a State Department cultural program. They had scheduled a five-hour book talk at the Estonian National Library. Five hours! That was because every word was translated (into Estonian). Then I went to Narva, a town in Estonia near the Russian border. A high school student translated what I said into Russian. At the end she said, "I looked you up on the Internet. Can I hug you?"

Just this fall I've been to the Twin Cities; Milwaukee; Westport, Conn.; New York City. I'm going to Memphis Sunday, will fly home on Tuesday. It's just that these books are so good — I just want people to have the opportunity to hold them in their hands and read them. "Book Lust to Go" is a book for browsers, about books that have a sense of "thereness."

Q: When you travel, do you lug all your books around, or do you use an e-reader?

A: I carry many, many books with me. Mostly mass market paperbacks and galleys (advance reader copies in paperback). I have an iPad ... I could see downloading them — reading on the plane that way could be good. But a lot of books I'm interested in are out of print (and not available for download). Sometimes I listen to audiobooks.

Q: Who are some great practitioners of the travel narrative?

A: Michael Mewshaw and his book "Between Terror and Tourism: An Overland Journey Across North Africa." I had given up reading Paul Theroux because he's so cranky, but "Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town" was great. Eric Newby's "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush" (ironically titled — the walk is not short). Colin Thubron ("Shadow of the Silk Road"; "In Siberia"). Peter Fleming ("Brazilian Adventure"), who was the brother of Ian Fleming.

Q: What makes a great travel writer?

A: They are able to go with the flow. They don't mind that it's a bad hotel room or that they've missed their plane — they just take it all in. Michael Mewshaw had a great quote about travel: "The pleasure of being where I had never been before, doing what I had never done, bound for who knew what — I found it all thrilling. I always have."

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