UW Alumni Book Club

Nancy’s Picks: Diving Deeper into “The Book of Form and Emptiness”

A legend among librarians, Nancy Pearl is well-known for her talent in helping readers find their next great read. She’s so good, she taught a class on this skill to future librarians here at the UW!

UW Alumni Book Club invited Nancy to recommend some other books after they’d picked up “The Book of Form and Emptiness” this reading period.

The juicy list she compiled offers a few different angles on our quirky and complex novel.  Explore beginners’ guides to the practice of Zen Buddhism. Browse playful novels that focus on the power of letters, language, books and words. Get recommendations on some of Ruth Ozeki’s earlier novels as well!

“Everyday Zen”

by Charlotte Joko Beck

Interested in reading more about Zen Buddhism? Beck is an American Zen teacher and practitioner who understands her life in terms of Zen concepts (not unlike Ruth Ozeki).

“Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice”

by Shunryu Suzuki

Another entrée into the topic of Zen Buddhism. Suzuki was one of the earliest popularizers of Zen Buddhism in the United States; his book was originally published in 1970.

“Cloud Cuckoo Land”

by Anthony Doerr

In Pulitzer Prize-winning Doerr’s third novel, a book unites the disparate lives and experiences of five different characters, who, despite varying dramatically one from the other in time, culture, and age, find a common humanity through reading.

(UW Alumni Book Club readers may remember this book from our 2021-22 season!)

“Ella Minnow Pea”

by Mark Dunn

Books are composed of words, but words are made up of letters, and what would happen if we were forbidden to use a particular letter in our speech and writing? Of course, not being able to use “z” in your speech or writing wouldn’t matter very much unless your name were Zachary Zevin, in which case it would matter a lot. But what happens if little by little more and more letters are declared out of bounds and unusable on pain of punishment? Dunn’s novel is both thoughtful and entertaining.

“The Eyre Affair”

by Jasper Fforde

Fforde’s imaginative debut novel takes place in a world where books and reading are really important. Thursday Next is a literary detective, investigating a variety of crimes, from book theft to preventing people who believe that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare (the “Baconians”) from proselytizing, but she’s never come up against a case as drastic as this: someone has kidnapped Jane Eyre from the pages of Jane Eyre. (I love this novel and reread it frequently.)


by Rebecca F. Kuang

This fantasy novel is set in an alternate Britain in the 19th century, where an elite group of students begin to question England’s empire building. It deals with the way language in general, and particularly language in translation, influences the political life of a country.


by China Miéville

Another fantasy that looks at language and politics. Miéville’s novel explores language and translation as it manifests in the relationship between humans and aliens on a far-distant planet.

“Words Are My Matter:
Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016,
with a journal of a Writer’s Week”

by Ursula Le Guin

This collection of essays, book reviews, lectures, and more will delight both fans of Le Guin’s fiction, but also any reader who appreciates intelligent, insightful writing.

“My Year of Meats”

by Ruth Ozeki

If you’re interested in seeing how a writer’s work develops over time, take a look at this novel, Ozeki’s first, which was published in 1998. It won the Kirayama Prize for Literature of the Pacific Rim (and I included it on my list of recommended books for that year.) The novel echoes Sinclair Lewis’s “The Jungle:” here’s your reason to give up eating meat, but it’s also about motherhood, fertility, and women’s friendships, topics Lewis probably wasn’t too interested in.

“Midnight’s Children”

by Salman Rushdie

If you enjoyed the magical realism aspects of Ozeki’s novel, take a look at Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning novel about Saleem Sinai, a boy born on the stroke of midnight when India and Pakistan become two separate countries.

“The Library”

by Sarah Stewart

In this picture book, perfect for 5 to 8-year-olds, Elizabeth Brown collects books—so many books that she doesn’t have room for them all. What does she do with them? Creates a library in her the town where she lives, of course. The perfect illustrations, which bring the author’s words to life, are by David Small.

“The Liar’s Dictionary”

by Eley Williams

A “mountweazel” is a noun describing fictitious entries in a dictionary. In this novel, in 1899, for various reasons, lexicographer Peter Winceworth decides to add some mountweazels of his own invention into a new edition of Swansby’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary. A hundred years later, Mallory, a young intern employed by the publisher, is tasked with uncovering Winceworth’s fake words before the dictionary is digitized for modern readers. Though their lives are separated by more than a century, Mallory comes to understand Winceworth through the words he’s added.

“The Dictionary of Lost Words”

by Pip Williams

Beginning with John Murray and his enormous undertaking of creating the Oxford English Dictionary, Williams has invented her main character, a young woman who makes it her life’s work to create a dictionary filled with the words that Murray and his lexicographers chose not to include. Along similar lines, Erik Larson’s “The Professor and the Madman” is a nonfiction account of one aspect of the making of the OED, and K.M. Elizabeth Murray’s “Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary” is the best biography of the man in charge of the whole shebang (it’s written by Murray’s granddaughter).

“The Shadow of the Wind”

by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

This compelling novel, translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves, takes place in post-Civil War Spain, when a bookseller takes Daniel, his 10-year-old son, to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and allows his son to pick one book for his own. He picks The Shadow of the Wind, by an author whose books are being systematically burned. It’s the first of 4 volumes in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. It’s an excellent audiobook as well.


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Meet Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl is a former UW faculty member and current UW Master of Library and Information Science advisory board member.
Nancy is widely known for her 2003 notable book “Book Lust,” which guides people through finding the right book for the right mood. During her time on faculty at the Information School, Nancy taught Readers Advisory, a course that trains new librarians in the art and science of helping patrons find their next good book. You may also recognize Nancy as the model for Archie McPhee’s quirky librarian action figure.
Nancy is the former executive director of the Washington Center for the Book at Seattle Public Library. In 2011, Library Journal selected Nancy as Librarian of the Year. In 2021, the National Book Foundation named her “Literarian,” which is awarded to an individual for a lifetime of achievement in expanding the audience for books and reading.