The Literate City: Without libraries and bookstores, how can it exist?

N.Y. Library on Opening Day (LOC)Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr
The annual survey ranking America’s Most Literate Cities was released this month, evaluating the USA’s 75 largest metro areas on six criteria that foster or support literacy: level of education, libraries, booksellers, Internet resources, and circulation of newspapers and periodicals. For the first time in five years, the #1 spot was not claimed by either Seattle or Minneapolis, although those cities still scored very well. Are you fortunate enough to live in or near one of the cities that made the top ten?
Washington DC
San Francisco
St. Paul
Portland/St. Louis (tie)
New York – center of publishing and character in thousands of literary works – was ranked at 26, and Chicago followed closely at 28. How did your city or metro area stack up?
I have to be honest and confess that every time the results of this study are released, I  consider relocating. Where’s Los Angeles? Securely in the bottom third, at #61 out of 75. Granted, this is a city with a reputation for not having much to do with books unless it’s turning them into movies, but that doesn’t help absorb the sting (and it’s not entirely accurate, either, for the record). It’s also little comfort that we have plenty of neighbors in the back of the pack: ten of California’s 12 largest cities landed in the bottom half, including Sacramento (#45) and lowest-ranked Stockton, which has been at or near the bottom since 2004, the first year of the survey.
Curious about just how we landed where we did, I took a look at LA’s rankings in each of the six subcategories. The city scored best in the Internet-resources category (#33 out of 75) and lowest in Libraries (#70). Since libraries are publicly funded and government budgets are stretched past the limits at the city, county, and state levels, the odds of improvement there aren’t good. (The Friends of the Library can only make so much money from book sales.)
We’re at the top of the bottom third (#53 out of 75) in Booksellers, but the way things are going, I expect that to slip in 2011. The Los Angeles Times’ book blog, Jacket Copy, recently started a Bookstore of the Week feature, and I hope it won’t run out of material any time soon  – there’s a bookstore-closing epidemic afoot. Encino is still fighting to keep its lone bookstore, a Barnes and Noble, open, while Borders has been closing stores left and right (although, granted, they are having lots of trouble company-wide).
Independent-bookstore supporters may not be all that broken up over the problems of the big chains, in hopes that the indies will benefit from the fallout, but it’s not necessarily so; local niche favorite the Mystery Bookstore will close at the end of January. With that following on the heels of a Borders closing, the Westwood area – the neighborhood surrounding UCLA – will soon be free of any bookstores not belonging to the University. It will also be abandoned by the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books – the country’s biggest public literary event, with over 100,000 visitors each year – which is relocating to the USC campus for its 16th edition this spring.

The 2009 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, ...Image via Wikipedia
(An aside: how can a city that supports an event like the LAT Festival of Books be ranked the 61st most literate in the country? We should get some special bonus points for that to offset some of our lower scores, if you ask me.)
I’ll admit that I do pick up books at Target sometimes. It happens under the same conditions that apply when I buy books online: I already know the specific book I want, and I happen to spot it there. As a book blogger, I may be more informed about what’s out there and worth reading than many people, and that does make it easier to know what I want – but sometimes I just want to be surprised. Online booksellers and big-box stores, where books are just one of the products, simply can’t capture the experience of browsing and discovery that happens in a store dedicated to books (or in a library, for that matter). As opportunities to have that kind of experience are lost, I can’t help thinking that the literate life of a city will suffer in response.
Meanwhile, for those of you at the other end of the rankings, Flavorwire offers “10 Great Works of Literature for America’s 10 Most Literate Cities:”
Washington DC: Washington DC (novel) by Gore Vidal
Seattle: Black Hole (graphic novel) by Charles Burns
Minneapolis: The Night of the Gun (memoir) by David Carr
Atlanta: Gone With the Wind (novel) by Margaret Mitchell
Pittsburgh: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (novel) by Michael Chabon
San Francisco: Valencia (memoir) by Michelle Tea
St. Paul: Until They Bring the Streetcars Back (novel) by Stanley Gordon West
Denver: I Get on the Bus (novel) by Reginald McKnight
Portland (tie): Geek Love (novel) by Katherine Dunn
St. Louis (tie): The Glass Menagerie (play) by Tennessee Williams
It’s nice that even though Minneapolis and St. Paul are Twin Cities, they each get their own books. And I think readers from any and every city should read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh – one of the best first novels of the late 20th century, if you ask me.

(A slightly revised version of this post was cross-posted at

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