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Lit Life

Tom Nissley is one of those lucky people who has turned his passion (in this case, love of literature) into good fortune. Nissley, a Seattle resident since 1992, has a doctorate in English literature from the UW, but instead of the classroom, he wound up at Amazon as a book editor and writer of Amazon’s “Omnivoracious” book blog.

Then in Dec. 2010 came a streak as reigning champion of the quiz show “Jeopardy,” and like his friend, fellow author and Seattle-area resident Ken Jennings, he made enough on the show to be able to write full time.

Lucky him, lucky us. Nissley has just published a charming and informative book, “A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year”
(Norton 464 pp., $24.95). If you’re fretting over a last-minute gift for someone who loves books, literature and literary history — well, your worries are over.

“Book of Days” presents, in a days-of-the-year format, facts, anecdotes and amazing stories about writers and fictional characters, along with reviews, generous and scathing, and other ephemera. (Who knew that Ezra Pound edited T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”)? For example: today — Dec. 16 — is the birthday of Jane Austen, Noel Coward and Philip K. Dick. In 1850, the narrator of Moby Dick meditated on the mystery of a whale’s spout. In 1971, John Updike’s novel “Rabbit Redux” got a dreadful review in The New York Times.

I felt compelled to ask him how he did it. Here’s an edited version of our conversation:

Q: Why did you decide to write a book like this?

A: Partially it was an excuse to tell stories about writers, which I love to do. But I love buying reference books, books that have voice and a sensibility of their own. You’ll have people show up on the same day that otherwise don’t have a lot in common. It’s not a place where you go for facts, it’s a place whereyou go to browse.

Q: I can imagine researching the lives of real people by date, but the lives of fictional characters? That stumped me.

A: I couldn’t have done it before Google or Amazon. Being able to search through a novel with the words January or February or March and go from there … take a book I loved or was curious about and see if it talked about dates.

For example, my birthday is June 24 — very little happened that day. But when I looked back on “Brokeback Mountain,” I realized that one of the central events, when Jack and Ennis get back together after four years, that’s on my birthday.

Q: How about library research?

A: What I would do almost every day is go into that beautiful library (Suzzallo) at the UW. I would have a few authors in mind, go into the stacks and find everything I could about those people … letters, diaries. Then I would fit what I found into my master organizer. It’s still open stacks there — it’s great to be able to just walk into the stacks as a civilian. It’s a much better way to research.

Q: If I found an interesting book or a fascinating diary entry, I would have a hard time cutting myself off.

A: That was really hard. I had a deadline … The math was simple. I had to get through so much each day, each week.

Someone like Virginia Woolf, Melville, you could do a whole book on those people. My credo was “awesome enough.” I didn’t feel like I had to find the best Joseph Conrad story, I could find a good Joseph Conrad story and move on.

Q: I find that people have a bottomless fascination with authors. Why is that?

A: Yes, especially their lives, which, in theory, you shouldn’t be interested in, because you’re just sitting in a room by yourself. I think it’s something about the magic of creation. Out of someone’s head comes this incredibly imaginative thing.

Q: You cover several centuries’ worth of literature in this book. What has changed about being an author? What remains the same?

One thing that hasn’t changed is that a writer is always writing without the expectation of fame, maybe with the hope for it but without the realistic expectation. Maybe the hope is more for posterity than celebrity. It’s the work of writers and readers to keep books alive. Just a few mentions is what can keep a book in print.

George Gissing is one of my favorites (“New Grub Street”). His diary is perfect for Twitter: “Cloudy, miserable, wrote four pages.” He was extremely glum about whether he would get read. But every day he wrote four pages, and 120 years later, a half dozen of his books are still in print. Dickens and Woolf are giants, but I’m always fascinated in someone like him whose books are still alive.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.