Wednesday, February 1, 2012

How (Il)literate Is Your City?

How literate is your city?

Just like a ball team, every author has a home-field advantage. After all, where an author lives is likely where most of his family, friends, and colleagues live, and theirs in turn. I live just outside of Washington, D.C., and I'm fortunate to have a network of very supportive people in my area who enthusiastically buy, read, and help me promote my books and stories, locally and everywhere else. These gracious, book-loving people invite me to speak about my writing at their homes, businesses, clubs and libraries, giving my work a huge boost in visibility. It's kind of like getting an invaluable head start in a literary marathon where the finish line's always over the next hill, never quite in sight.

In that sense, the more "literate" an author's home town, the bigger a head start she can get when she's looking for traction for her work. So Central Connecticut State University president Jack Miller's annual survey of "America's Most Literate Cities" is something every author (and publisher, for that matter) should take a look at, both as an exercise in assessing her home town's enthusiasm for books and reading, and to help her design a promotional plan in cities other than her own where people devour books.

Before you rush to the survey and get disgruntled because your burg didn't place anywhere on the list, a caveat's in order. The study is limited to cities with populations of at least 250,000 as of the 2010 U.S. Census. While that might seem arbitrary, it's reasonable when you consider that according to the last Census there were 275 American cities with over 100,000 residents, and the National League of Cities counts more than 19,000 distinct U.S. cities, towns and villages in its membership. With the 250,000 resident cut-off, Miller's literacy survey ranks only the country's 75 largest cities.

In determining a city's passion for the lettered arts, the study looks at six criteria: daily and Sunday newspaper circulation; "Internet data" (which includes visits to newspaper/TV websites, Internet book purchases, and e-reader ownership); magazine and journal purchases/subscriptions; the number of retail, rare and used book stores a city supports; educational attainment data per city; and libraries, librarians, volumes, and circulation rates each city has per capita. Again, this is arguably an imperfect set of measures by which to rank one city more "literate" than another. Still, as with the population metric, you've got to start and end somewhere, and whatever flaws the study may have doesn't strip all meaning from its results.

So what does the survey say? For those of you who bash New Jersey as a Snooki-centric bastion of goonish illiteracy (be fair -- Snooki did write a book, kind of), Newark has the most book stores per capita. Folks who poke fun at the Lone Star state's education system may be surprised to learn Plano, Texas, has the country's highest per capita educational attainment levels. Cleveland, Ohio trumps all the other municipal contestants in library supremacy. And my town, Washington, D.C., defeats all comers in newspaper and periodical consumption, and using the Internet for buying and reading books.

Who knew?

Well, now, you do.

Let's put aside the granularity and look at the bigger picture. Sure to stir the delicious discord and choice controversy we love so much here at Gazalapalooza, here's the list of the Top 20 most literate cities in America in 2011:

1.     Washington, D.C.
2.     Seattle, WA
3.     Minneapolis, MN
4.     Atlanta, GA
5.     Boston, MA
6.     Pittsburgh, PA
7.     Cincinnati, OH
8.     St. Louis, MO
9.     San Francisco, CA
10.   Denver, CO
11.   Portland, OR
12.   St. Paul, MN
13.   Cleveland, OH
14.   Kansas City, MO
15.   Oakland, CA
16.   Raleigh, NC
17.   New Orleans, LA
18.   Baltimore, MD
19.   Honolulu, HI
20.   Virginia Beach, VA

What about those self-proclaimed major metropolitan cultural centers you'd expect to finish at least in the hallowed Top 20? At least higher than Virginia Beach? Where are Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Houston, for example? Respectively, they're at 29, 31, 59, and 60. And perhaps most interestingly, what of New York, the gatekeeper and shining citadel of American commercial literary publishing?  The Big Apple tied with Austin, Texas, at 22.5; both were edged out by Tulsa, Oklahoma, and they barely eclipsed Lexington, Kentucky. New York's love for literature outflanked by Virginia Beach's and Tulsa's? I, for one, didn't see that coming.

It's all well and good to applaud America's Top 20 most bookish cities. But it's also fun to see which of our nation's biggest towns dwell on the list's bottom, too, right? It's a guilty pleasure, like rubbernecking at literary train wrecks.

71.   Fresno, CA
72.   Stockton, CA
73.   El Paso, TX
74.   Corpus Christi, TX
75.   Bakersfield, CA

Hey, Bakersfield -- buy a book, why don't you?

Stereotypes are a bitch, aren't they?

"[Arthur Miller] wouldn't have married me if I had been nothing but a dumb blonde."
~~Marilyn Monroe~~

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