Book City: Seattle Times' book editor is a Jared Diamond nut

How Mary Ann Gwinn reads so many books -- more than a few of them Diamond's -- and still manages to find time for her book club.
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Mary Ann Gwinn

How Mary Ann Gwinn reads so many books -- more than a few of them Diamond's -- and still manages to find time for her book club.

Mary Ann Gwinn is the book editor for The Seattle Times, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and a lifelong book addict. She was born and raised in a hot and humid small town in Arkansas where there was nothing to do but read. And read she did — three books a week (the maximum allowable checkout from the public library) until she became a teenager, when she abandoned reading for cheerleading. At 21, she picked up books again and has been reading ever since.

What book(s) are open on your nightstand right now?

Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday,” which comes out in January. And Louise Erdrich’s wonderful novel, “The Round House,” which just won the National Book Award for fiction.

Any book you’ve read lately that really caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world?

Diamond’s new book — he’s an amazing synthesizer of knowledge from different fields. He’s a professor of geography at UCLA and a MacArthur Fellow who wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse.” This new book, subtitled “What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?” looks at the whole of human development, how human beings have changed, and what we have to learn from “primitive” societies that largely live the way people did thousands of years ago.

Have you read a truly great book lately?

Hilary Mantel’s novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” are truly great books. The stoy of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s right-hand man, they are like nothing I’ve ever read – they’re novels, but you really feel like you are inside the head of Cromwell and seeing the 16th century through his eyes. Both of these books won the Man Booker Prize – for good reason.

I thought “The Orchardist” by Amanda Coplin, set in eastern Washington, was an amazing debut novel. It showed such maturity and insight into the human condition. She’s only 31 years old! I wish I could get more people to read “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” by Jonathan Evison – it has a tough premise, but it’s a funny, big-hearted book.

How did you land the job of book editor at the Seattle Times?

I’d been a reporter at the newspaper for 15 years when the previous book editor retired. I applied and got the job fourteen years ago. Now I feel like I am never not thinking about books!

What is your favorite part of the job?

Reading and talking to authors. Looking at books. I just wish I had time to give them all the attention they deserve.

Have you met an author or two that you got a big kick out of?

I got to interview John le Carre a few years ago, when he came through Seattle. He is a completely charming man. We sat in the hotel bar of the Alexis — he pulled out the review I’d written of his book, and went over it point by point. I thought I was going to pass out.

I interviewed David McCullough, and was so energized by the sheer enthusiasm he has for his occupation. He seemed completely astonished that readers loved "John Adams" so much.

What do you read for your own personal enjoyment?

Preferably British, Scottish or Irish mysteries. I’m reading a Scottish author now, A.D. Scott. Her mysteries are set in the late 1950s at a small-town newspaper — the first is called “A Small Death in the Great Glen.” P.D. James, of course, and Ruth Rendell. Ian Rankin is very funny — I love his Rebus character.

What were your most cherished books when you were a child?

I lived in a very small town and the offerings at the public library were limited. I adored the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley. My sister is ten years older than me — we were reminiscing recently, and we could both remember exactly where those books were shelved. The first book that made me really think was Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” I can still remember the cover. I thought it was going to blow up in my hands.

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage that’s stuck with you?

The last line of “The Great Gatsby”:  “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Any well-reviewed or popular book you didn’t feel lived up to the hype?

I read “Gone Girl” in a couple of sittings. It was gripping, but the last quarter of it I thought was completely over the top. She lost me.

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years?

“The Great Gatsby” and “Legends of the Fall”, by Jim Harrison.

Are you a fast or slow reader? Do you write in the margins/take notes?

I would say medium. I use Post-It notes; I try not to deface finished copies of books. I actually prefer galleys, (advance reading copies); I can underline and write notes to my heart’s content.

When and where do you settle down to read?

I’m kind of restless. When the weather’s nice I read in my backyard. When it’s not nice I try to read on a sofa next to a window in the living room, but my cat is always trying to muscle me out.

Do you read poetry?

The last poetry volume I read was “Plume” by Washington state poet laureate Kathleen Flenniken. It was about her upbringing in Hanford. I really liked it.

What do you see as the future of books as we know them?

I feel positive about the future of reading. People can get books in so many ways now — the digital age has made them much more accessible. We had the heads of the city and county library system in to speak to the newspaper staff recently. They both said that while print readership has declined very slightly, e-book readership is skyrocketing.

I’m not so positive about authors’ ability to make a living. The traditional publishing model has been pretty much fractured. I think it’s the Wild West out there.

What book do you plan to read next?

I’m trying to finish Jared Diamond….Then I have to take on the book for the book club I’m in…

A book club? Isn’t that like carrying coals to Newcastle?

It’s really nuts!

What Val’s reading this week: Wallace Stegner’s “Crossing to Safety”; she’s re-reading it after Amy Pennington’s mention in Book City a couple of weeks ago. Twenty years ago she loved Stegner’s language, but now she’s the age of the characters, she appreciates the poignancy of the story.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.