Seattle may be the home of Amazon, a company about to try to reinvent the book with a new electronic version called The Kindle, but it's also a place with a traditional bookish culture. That was on display last Friday, at an event in the University of Washington's Suzzallo Library honoring the new winner of the Maxine Cushing Gray Award, David Laskin. Very civilized it was, tippling hot cocoa, rubbing elbows with Ivan Doig, and hearing an elegant paper read by Laskin, recounting how he found his calling as a writer. The room abounded with bibliophiles wearing tweed. And who, you may well ask, was Maxine Cushing Gray? She was, until her death in 1985, a local arts critic, goad, watchdog of arts commissions, and passionate advocate for such causes as Native Arts and local composers. You might call her a blogger before blogs, for her outlets were the tiny Argus (a crackerbarrel weekly I once edited) and the still tinier Northwest Arts, her I.F. Stone-like newsletter, where she traced minuscule grants by arts bodies with the lazerlike attention Stone would apply to the Pentagon. She bustled about, tossing off observations both sage and weird, and was affectionately known as The Tweed Hornet. Nothing like her around these days. "Tiny" might also be a word applied to Seattle's literary circle, though it is getting a little richer with the arrival of such writers as David Laskin, who moved here from New York when his wife, Kate O'Neill, took a job teaching writing to UW law students. Here, he found himself as a writer, whose subjects were literary circles, travel, gardening, weather, and American pioneer history. His most notable book is The Children's Blizzard (2004), which recounts a devastating blizzard in the Dakotas in 1888. In his paper Laskin talked about his next book, recounting the story of many families (as with the blizzard history), in this case those of immigrant stock who served in World War I. He recounted a particularly heartbreaking story about Mennonite young men, whose faith taught them to be pacifists, and how they were tortured and killed by fellow Americans. One curious thing about some of Seattle's leading literary figures is how they are drawn to stories of desolation and ruin in the West. Laskin tells the story of the killer blizzard, Jonathan Raban (in Badland) tells a similar tale from eastern Montana, and Timothy Egan (in The Worst Hard Times) finds more family histories of endurance, everyday heroism, and bitterness in the Great Dust Bowl. These are stories of climate disasters, suited to our current forebodings. But they also provide a dark backward glance, from the perspective of the green and pleasant Northwest, at the hucksterism, suffering, and almost Melvillian malevolence of nature in the great American Deserts. Northwest history is often said to be devoid of tragedy and loss. After a few hardships on the Oregon Trail, it's all about happy endings. The darkening of our literary imagination comes by peeling back history to 100 years ago, to a more exposed landscape of killer snows and sun-darkening dust and primitive stories of survival.