Nina King, 68

Nina King, editor of Washington Post's Book World, dies at 68

Ms. King threw herself into the challenges of editing Book World, which she called
Ms. King threw herself into the challenges of editing Book World, which she called "one of the best jobs in the world." (Todd Cross/the Washington Post)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 8, 2010

Nina King, who was editor of The Washington Post's Book World section for more than a decade and often reviewed fiction and wrote about her far-flung travels, died May 6 at the Washington House, a nursing facility in Alexandria. A cousin, Nancy Dupree, said she died of complications from Parkinson's disease one day before her 69th birthday.

After becoming Book World editor in 1988, Ms. King introduced several features to the weekly review, including columns on poetry, the publishing industry and dispatches from other cities.

"She was an adventurous editor, always willing to try something new," said staff critic Michael Dirda, who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1993.

In 1996, another contributor, David Streitfeld, who wrote the idiosyncratic back-page "Book Report" column, unmasked Time magazine journalist Joe Klein as the previously anonymous author of the best-selling novel "Primary Colors."

Three years before she joined The Post, Ms. King learned that she had Parkinson's disease, but she tried mightily not to let her ailment interfere with her work.

"People with incurable degenerative diseases -- such as my personal enemy, Parkinson's -- are well advised not to dwell on the future," she wrote in a 1998 article. "It can be grim: immobility, crippling falls, depression, dementia, gothic nursing homes, that sort of thing. With little to look forward to, it may be better to focus on the present or even the past."

For that reason, she threw herself into the challenges of editing Book World, which she called "one of the best jobs in the world." During a typical year, she and her staff assigned about 1,800 reviews, trying to balance literary and commercial fiction, nonfiction, public policy, scholarship, journalism, history and art.

As a critic, Ms. King relished discovering new literary talent and was among the first reviewers to bring attention to Frank McCourt's 1996 memoir, "Angela's Ashes."

"This memoir is an instant classic of the genre -- all the more remarkable for being the 66-year-old McCourt's first book," she wrote in her review.

She also helped solidify the reputation of D.C. crime novelist George Pelecanos, writing in 2001 that "the hard-boiled mystery writer that Washington lacked seems to have emerged from the shadows."

In a 1996 essay, Ms. King described "the cynical extreme of misconceptions about the way Book World operates."

On the one hand, some readers believed that the reviews were part of a political conspiracy designed to support friends and skewer rivals.

"The other, naive extreme," Ms. King wrote, "imagines Book World's editors and writers spending long, languid afternoons reading the latest John Grisham or the new Annie Proulx while consuming a lot of bonbons. Mine is a great job but not that great."

Nina Elizabeth Davis was born May 7, 1941, in the Panama Canal Zone, where her father, a Navy rear admiral, was stationed. She lived overseas for much of her childhood and graduated from high school in Paris.

She attended the University of Maryland's Munich branch and Middlebury College in Vermont before graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1963. She received a master's degree in comparative literature from UNC in 1967 and a doctorate in English literature from Wayne State University in Detroit in 1973.

After teaching briefly at Queens College in New York, Ms. King was the book editor of Newsday on New York's Long Island from 1973 to 1988. She had eclectic literary tastes and was the co-author of the 1997 book "Crimes of the Scene: A Mystery Novel Guide for the International Traveler," which combined her twin interests in crime fiction and travel.

"What she brought to Book World was a very sharp appreciation for literary fiction and literary biography," Marie Arana, Ms. King's deputy editor and later her successor, said Friday. "She had exquisite tastes in literature, but she was also remarkably well-grounded in the book industry as a whole."

Ms. King's first marriage, to Wayne King, ended in divorce. Her second husband, James Cashman, died of cancer one year after their marriage in 1984.

Survivors include a sister.

As a girl, Ms. King lived in Key West, Fla., and developed a lifelong passion for all things Cuban. She visited the island nation several times to write about its culture, literature and art.

In 1995, she underwent experimental brain surgery for Parkinson's disease in Sweden. Her symptoms returned after a year, and in 1999, she stepped down as Book World editor to become a contributing editor.

"I hope the reader will intuit that I indeed do have a life -- one in which Parkinson's is allowed only a secondary role," Ms. King wrote in 1998. "I politely request that I not be defined by my disease -- except in the metaphorical sense of the poet Alexander Pope when he wrote of 'this long disease my life.' "

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