375px-Space_Needle_2011-07-04Seattle leads Amazon’s 2015 list of America’s “most well-read cities.” My hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, with a population of around 150,000, is no longer #1. Amazon now compares only cities with populations of half a million or more, not the previous 100,000.

Thank goodness. Alexandria’s #1 showing distracted the media and others from genuine literacy issues. Amazon based its numbers only on the company’s per-capita sales of books, newspapers and magazines. The reality in Alexandria differs starkly from the past Amazon rankings. The only bookstore of any size is the local Barnes & Noble branch.

More than half of Alexandria’s public high school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at school, and as I’ve written before, I doubt that their parents are reading Dickens and Austen to them. Library circulation is hardly anything to write home about. One reason could be the pathetic budget for books and other items—only about $2.50 per capita, well below the national one of around $4.

While Amazon’s “most well-read cities” honors were vexingly misleading, they in fact proved useful to me in the end. Alexandria’s #1 showing was a peg for such LibraryCity and TeleRead items as The sad reason why Amazon’s #1 reading city doesn’t belong on the list. It also helped that Alexandria was lavishing some $350,000 per year on salary and benefits for its then-city manager, Rashad Young—or about as much as the library’s entire content budget. Between Amazon and Young, I could grab people’s attention far more effectively than otherwise. Making a case in different ways, other library boosters also did their share, led by Library Director Rose Dawson. The result? Alexandria’s content budget for FY 2016 will exceed $500,000—hardly enough but still quite a jump from the previous $364,000.

Related: Google’s round-up of chest-thumping from media in Amazon-honored cities. By way of Ink, Bytes & Pixels, here are links to Amazon rankings for various years: 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Image credit: Photo by Jordon Kalilich. CC licensed.


  1. I’ve lived in Seattle until 2012. Being #1 hardly surprises me. What are you going to other than read when for months it gets dark at 5 pm and drizzles constantly. You sit, drink coffee, and read a book. I bucked that trend though. I walked in the drizzle and listened to audiobooks.

    Not that all that reading does Seattleites any good. When it comes to politics, its citizens might as well be illiterate. They think in bumper sticker slogans. In the 1990s one of such slogan was “Save Our Salmon.” Yes, they actually used one that abbreviated to SOS. If you want to move Seattle voters, you have to Keep It Really Simple. Hysterical claims help too.

    The result? An incredibly stupid law that costs a fortune and does no good. A few blocks from my house, a 17-inch or so drainage pipe under a street collapsed. That triggered SOS and—I kid you not—$800,000 was spent on landscaping etc. to allegedly protecting any salmon that might have migrated through that pipe.

    The problem? At the upstream side of that pipe was a 200-foot ditch two-feet wide and mere inches deep followed by a 20-foot high rock berm and an ugly flood control pit that was dry in the summer. No salmon would ever make it up that to lay eggs. No salmon would ever migrate downstream. That $800,000 was wasted. It would not save a single salmon.

    Meanwhile, I was living at the time on a branch of Thornton Creek that did occasionally have migrating salmon. Surreptitiously, because it was probably illegal, I built a rock dam on the creek. The creek itself is so filled with gravel, that it is only inches deep and thus dreadful for fish, especially salmon. My dam created a deep pool at its foot where salmon could rest as they migrated upstream. The creek should have been filled with such deep pools built every hundred feet or so at public expense. But hey, Seattle voters did not have enough sense to vote for that sort of law. They were too busy reading Forty Shades of Whatever.

    To the city’s credit, when I talked to the city engineer forced to manage that $800,000 project, she was as disgusted by the waste as I was.

    In short literacy, reading and good sense are three completely different things. A century and a half ago, many Americans were highly literate even though they might own no more that a dozen books. You might even say that they were highly literate because they only had a dozen books.

    Today, many people who read constantly have addled views of the world precisely because they read bestselling trash. I know. I’ve tried to read some of those books and gave up after a few dozen pages. It’s a phenomena I’ve mentioned here before. People with lots of time to read are often people with little to do and little real understanding of how the world works. In one book I gave up on, the hero—if that is even the right word for him—jumped in his private jet and headed for Europe with no more preparation that if he were driving to the local mall. Read that and your views of what it takes to be competent and show good sense become bizarre.

    And good sense—what am I going to say about that? If I were running a chain of convenience stores and looked at Obama’s thin 2008 resume, I wouldn’t have hired him to manage a single grocery. Yet he got elected president based, as with SOS, on a mere bumper sticker slogan and a trash-novel view of what it takes to be a leader.

    I will say this about Seattle. They do spend money on their public libraries. The system bought so many books, I found almost any non-academic book I wanted already in their collection. That was great.

    The mid-sized college town where I now live isn’t like that. It has shelves filled with top-fifty trash fiction writers and almost nothing that matters. The library not only didn’t have The Everything Store, the definitive work about the world’s largest retailer, I couldn’t get them to acquire it. That’d have cut into their budget for those idiotic novels about guys who fly to Europe like other people drive to their local mall.

    Yes, I’m grousing, but like David Rothman, I have reason to do so. It’s the only way to get things changed.

  2. Mencken would have loved your heresies, Michael.

    So will the good citizens of the “mid-sized college town,” your current location, run you out if you identify it?

    Maybe you can do a David act and engage in Library Shaming, as I call it—unabashedly knocking the place for its miserliness forward books, or at least those that would interest you or me.

    We’re hardly clones; I voted for Obama, given the scary alternatives. But I myself would grouse about a library system with the priorities you’ve described.

    Name the town, come up with representative specifics about the local collection’s present and the AWOL titles, please triple-check your facts, and e-mail the results to me at davidrothmanNOSPAMpobox.com. I can run your thoughts as a guest essay for TeleRead.

    Try to find out the per capita spent on the content budget, and we’ll see how close it comes to the $4 national average. For quotation, ask the collections head why the system would not buy as important a book as The Everything Store. Mention this person by name and title in your TeleRead essay.

    Perhaps the library mess can even be fodder for debates in the next local election. In certain ways your system may be suffering from an advanced case of library gentrification. Are there low-income people in the city? How much reading does the library have for them? This needs to be the stuff of political debate. Also talk to the pols who set the library budget. See if they would increase it if the library better served its patrons.

    No pay, but maybe, just as I did here in Alexandria, you can make a difference.


  3. Whichever city is included in the list for as long as you know from yourself that you’ve chosen your city to live freely, that already makes sense. Yeah it somehow affects one person with the hearsays around him but at the end of the day, it’s only you who can figure out whether you’re living in a good city or not.

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