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Originally published Monday, March 25, 2013 at 5:00 AM

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The way we read now: Top 5 e-books at Seattle-area libraries

Seattle Times book editor

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Lit Life

Earlier this month I published a news item that begged for further investigation. The news: King County Public Library and the Seattle Public Library systems lead the nation in patrons’ checkout of e-books. KCLS was the big kahuna, clocking in at number one (1.3 million checkouts). SPL was close behind, at number four (850,000 checkouts).

People are reading e-books in Seattle! No surprise, but what are they reading?

Here is what I found out.

For 2012, here are the top five e-books checked out at KCLS: “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James,“The Litigators” by John Grisham,The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson and “Explosive Eighteen” by Janet Evanovich.

Now, I’m no literary snob (ask me about “Tattoo’s” Lisbeth Salander!) but “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the dominance-submission, sadomasochistic bondage tale set partially in a Seattle high rise, took the top spot? Maybe SPL patrons are a little more high-concept? Lovers of language? Looking for a way to make the world better?

Not exactly.

Here are the top five e-books checked out at SPL for 2012: “The Help,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “The Tiger’s Wife” by Téa Obreht, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “A Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin. Only one top-five e-book, “The Tiger’s Wife,” the story of a young doctor who confronts dark secrets in a Balkan country, could be called literary fiction.

Then, as happens occasionally, I had a thought. What if people are reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” in its e-reader version because there’s no cover to advertise WHAT they’re reading?

So I asked SPL spokeswoman Andra Addison to list the top books circulated in 2012 in print (e.g., old-fashioned paper).

Here they are: “The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay,” by Suzanne Collins, the dystopian trilogy about a girl fighting for her live against an evil totalitarian empire. Number 4 was “The Sense of an Ending” by British literary author Julian Barnes, a novel about a man looking for reasons behind an old school friend’s suicide, and “The Marriage Plot” by the critically acclaimed Jeffrey Eugenides, a richly told story of three Brown University graduates in a decades-long love triangle.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” clocked in at No. 15 in number of print book checkouts.

(The county didn’t break out print books, but of books in all forms — print, e-books, audio — the top five were “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “The Litigators,” “The Help,” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Hunger Games.”)

What to make of these lists? Some thoughts:

1. In Seattle, those reading “Fifty Shades” were considerably more likely to read it on an e-book than in print. The county, not so much.

2. People love dystopian fiction. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Hunger Games” and “A Game of Thrones” all depict worlds suffused with and driven by threat.

Why is that? I could speculate, but I’m out of room. What are your thoughts? Send them to me at mgwinn@seattletimes.com, or — if you’re reading this online — post them in the comments at the end of this story.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW's “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.

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