Book City: Mimi Gates on the art of selecting your reading

The Seattle Art Museum's former head talks about falling for Asian novels, the poetry of a lifetime and books that take you to different times and cultures.
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Mimi Gardner Gates

The Seattle Art Museum's former head talks about falling for Asian novels, the poetry of a lifetime and books that take you to different times and cultures.

Mimi Gardner Gates is an art historian who directed the Seattle Art Museum for 15 years, and now oversees the Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas. She's an enthusiast of Asian fiction, and she always keeps a book by her husband, Bill Gates Sr., close to hand.

Valerie Easton: What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?

Mimi Gates: "Showing up for Life" by Bill Gates Sr. is always there. Also Alice Munro's "Dear Life," and "Big Breasts and Wide Hips" by Mo Yan. Since he won the Nobel, he has risen to the top of my reading list. Xinru Liu’s "The Silk Road in World History"; since I work and lecture on the art of the Silk Road, I’m interested in this newly found publication.

The Silk Road?

We think of globalization as a recent development, but the trade routes and oases of the Silk Road were bustling international centers for thousands of years, from the 2nd century BCE to the 14th century CE. I’m fascinated by the intersection of cultures — how cultures influence one another over time. Especially the World Heritage site of Dunhuang, where over 500 Buddhist caves are filled with sculpture and wall painting that span a millennium. What’s extraordinary is that great cultures of the world — Greek and Roman, Persian and Middle Eastern, Indian and Central Asian, and Chinese — co-mingled at Dunhuang. I set up an American foundation to work with the Dunhuang Academy to preserve the caves for future generations.

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

Vaddey Ratner’s "In the Shadow of the Banyan" tells the story of the Khmer Rouge from the point of view of a young girl — compelling, emotionally gripping, beautifully written. Amitav Ghosh’s "River of Smoke," the second book in a trilogy, is based on the latter years of the opium trade. He’s a writer who will win the Nobel Prize — brilliant, well researched and inventive.

Any art-world books you particularly love?

"The Hare With Amber Eyes" by Edmund de Waal is an incredible non-fiction book telling the history of his family and their collection.

If someone’s goal was to get more out of museum visits, could you recommend a capsule collection of three to five titles?

It’s not necessary. All you need is a mind open to beauty and full of curiosity. However, I would recommend "History of the World Through 100 Objects" by Neil MacGregor, who is the director of the British Museum. Also, Michael Kimmelmann’s "The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa." It’s a witty and delightful read that provides great insights into how indispensable art is to life.

What were your most cherished childhood books?

Marguerite Henry's horse stories, especially "Misty of Chincoteague." I was crazy about horses.

As a lifelong reader, how have your interests and tastes changed through the decades?

I didn’t read novels much after I graduated, because I worked to earn a Ph.D., had a full-time job and a family. But ever since I came to Seattle I have read voraciously, especially novels by Asian writers. I like succinct writing, concise and crisp. Some writers aren’t concise, but use words so beautifully they hold my attention. For example, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Amitav Ghosh powerfully transport you to a different time and different world.

Did you become fascinated with Asian fiction as part of your work at SAM?

I’d traveled to Asia during my time at Yale, and read "Samurai," a popular novel and also "The Story of the Stone," a marvelous Chinese historical novel. But it was when I moved to Seattle that Asian fiction became a passion. Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Books fueled that interest by recommending new books. Friends connected to the Gates Foundation, who also love to read Asian fiction, told me about their favorites. The more I read, the more engaged I became. 

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

I re-read "The Tale of Genji" from time to time.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" is another favorite, maybe my all-time favorite. Also "Love in the Time of Cholera."

Have you read a well-reviewed or popular book lately that you felt didn’t live up to the hype?

I started "The Help" but did not finish it.

When and where do you settle down to read?

On airplanes, in hotels, at home in bed before I sleep.

Do you get books from the library, read on a Kindle or iPad?

I purchase books because I like the feel of holding a book in my hand, and also want to support great independent bookstores like Elliott Bay Books.

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

I treasure poetry. I read W.B. Yeats' "Song of Wandering Aengus" regularly.

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Any other favorite poets? You’re on the board of Copper Canyon Press — any contemporary poets we should be paying more attention to?

W. S. Merwin is a favorite. "The Shadow of Sirius" and his other books, including poems in translation, are compelling. Valzhyna Mort is a young, female poet, published by Copper Canyon, who deserves attention. Galway Kinnell was once a favorite but my interest in his work has cooled.

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

Andrea Hirata’s "The Rainbow Troops" is a superb novel, brand new. Focusing on a village school in Indonesia, Hirata writes with ease and eloquence.

What Val’s Reading This Week: “The Glimpses of the Moon” by Edith Wharton, an international bestseller in 1922, is one of her shorter, happier novels — a clever love story about ambition, money, and compromise. 


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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.