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Book City: Exploring David Brewster’s reading habits

David Brewster

David Brewster has been a teacher, journalist and publisher. He remains a civic starter-upper. Since moving to Seattle in 1965 to teach English at the University of Washington, he has helped launch Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, Eastside Week, the Mark Tobey Pub, Town Hall Seattle, and Crosscut.com. Brewster’s current venture, set to open this autumn in a wing of the Downtown YMCA, is an independent library called “Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum.”

What books are on your nightstand at the moment?

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett’s new book Carolina Israelite, a biography of Harry Golden (American Jewish writer and newspaper publisher). The author is a friend and former colleague at The Weekly and Crosscut, and I know how funny and shrewd a writer she is and what a great match of author and subject we have here. Also The Teacher Wars, by Dana Goldstein. Both our daughters are teachers, and this book makes the case that nearly all the reforms of today have been tried and found wanting in U.S. history. We just can’t get education right.

Then there’s Simon Schama’s The American Future: a History. Written in the flush of excitement around Obama’s 2008 election, it mines the American past for hopes of rebirth. Schama is a compelling and original writer, and I’m busy trying to find the way forward for our politics.

Have you read a truly great book lately?

Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel focuses on one Henry James masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady. But it’s about all of James and all of that era. Literary criticism in the fine old manner — free of jargon, passionately in love with the work.

What publications/blogs/webpages do you rely on to stay informed about what’s going on in our corner of the world?

I read the Seattle Times, in print, each morning and feel it’s improving notably. I start each day reading three print papers: the Seattle Times, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Also Crosscut, of course; KUOW; Real Clear Politics and Arts Journal for aggregation; Puget Sound Business Journal; and Publicola, are the main sources.

David Brewster, Crosscut's founder and former publisher, is working on his latest startup, an independent library.
David Brewster, Crosscut’s founder and former publisher, is working on his latest startup, an independent library. Credit: Sarah Meyer

What is Folio? Can you explain your current venture?

My Boston daughter introduced me to the Boston Athenaeum, the leading independent library in the country, and since then I’ve felt Seattle deserves to be in the league. (Seattle’s will be the 20th independent library in the country.) We are aimed at people who love good books, and they come from all over the demographic spectrum. We have books donated from serious readers and collectors. We also want to create a congenial, very affordable, inspiring place for people to work and write downtown, tapping the co-working idea that Seattle loves. Lastly, Folio will put on lots of evening programs in our Downtown Y space: book-related events, music, debates, discussions, spoken word programs, often in innovative formats.

You’ve described Folio as “being about the physical book in the age of Amazon.” What do you see as the future of the book in the form we know and love?

Digital books are like the paperback revolution: cheaper, portable and in the end increasing the market for books while scarcely displacing hardcover books. Already the digital revolution is peaking, settling into a niche for less-serious books. Polls show that people overwhelmingly prefer physical books, and there is a whole shift to more tactile pleasures, including such things as knitting. And, physical books do a better job of preserving the written word. But they need a little help, which is one reason for Folio: “books at their best.”

Do you read more fiction or non-fiction? Any favorite genres? Any genres you avoid?

I read about 2-to-1 nonfiction over fiction. I like biography, revisionist history, books about arts and classical music, philosophical novels. I rarely read business books, except those about media. I’m not into mysteries, self-help, celebrities, sports, fantasy.

Any hands-down favorite authors? Which of their books?

Louis Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club (read it twice); E.M. Forster, particularly Howards End; James Shapiro, a Shakespeare expert and author of A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, a day-by-day look at 1599, when the Bard emerged to maturity; Michael Ignatieff, author of the biography Isaiah Berlin, about my favorite intellectual historian.

Any books you’ve read lately that fell short? Disappointed you?

I thought Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit about Teddy Roosevelt and Taft and the muckrakers showed a sad falling off from her high standards, though I was pleased to learn how impressive Taft was.

What were your most cherished childhood books?

I read a lot of Robert Heinlein, though I never read science fiction now. Kon Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl, was a big favorite.

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt turn to again?

E.M. Forster novels, Jane Austen novels, Isaiah Berlin essays, Lionel Trilling literary essays, and history books by Gordon Wood, who is a specialist in the American Revolution.

What do you plan to read next?

Tom Glynn’s Reading Publics, which is about New York City libraries, 1754-1911, showing the many forms of independent libraries before the modern public library.

What Val’s Reading This Week: The Dream Lover: a Novel, by Elizabeth Berg is a fictionalized account of the life of author George Sand. Berg chronicles Sand’s unconventional life, how she struggled to live free from the many legal and societal constraints on women in the early-to-mid 19th century. Berg paints a vivid picture of the cultural and artistic life of Paris at the time (Balzac and other notables make appearances), and how Sand’s notoriety grew throughout her career.

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