D.C.: A City of Readers

D.C. ranked nation's most literate city

By P.J. Orvetti
|  Wednesday, Jan 12, 2011  |  Updated 1:00 PM EDT
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D.C.: A City of Readers

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A customer shops at Barnes and Noble.

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Some years ago, I rushed out of the swank downtown office I then occupied to spend a lunch hour standing in line at the nearest bookstore. I had raced out to grab up “Master of the Senate,” the 1,167-page third volume of Robert Caro’s still-incomplete biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. As I waited to pay, I noticed at least four other people in line with the same book.

Only in Washington, I thought.

Over the New Year’s weekend, my wife and I took on the painful task of pruning our own library, since our bookshelves were overstacked and buckling. A carload of giveaways were hauled off, and yet, we still have too many books. In that, we fit our hometown well.

This is a city of readers -- readers of broad tastes. According to the latest Nielsen BookScan local bestseller list, that person in line in front of you at Barnes and Noble might be buying the latest Tom Clancy novel, George W. Bush’s memoir (or Keith Richards’s), a new biography of Cleopatra, the Daily Show’s “Earth,” or all of the above.

We love our books -- and now it’s official. The annual ranking of America’s Most Literate Cities by Central Connecticut State University has D.C. on top, ousting the longtime champ, coffeehouse-rich Seattle. The study assesses cities based on number of bookstores, quality of library resources, Internet resources, educational achievement, newspaper circulation, and strength in magazines. The District was followed in the top five by Seattle, Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh.

DCentric’s Anna John muses, “I think one of the reasons D.C. loves reading is because we’re always on our way somewhere, waiting for a bus or train.” And technology changes how we do it. I finally gave in and adopted a Kindle after my last birthday -- it’s easier reading 1,167-page books on Metro that way. John says that while she reads just as much as she ever did, she buys fewer books and newspapers now, since the way she consumes “news and reading material has changed.”

WTOP wryly observes that the Connecticut study “looks at whether people actually do read, not whether they are able to read.” And in that second area, D.C. still has a long way to go.

Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts” report says Maryland’s public school system is the best in the nation, while Virginia ranks an impressive fourth. The District, however, is second from the bottom, with only Nebraska getting a lower score. While D.C. got an overall score of D+ -- about what I used to manage in algebra -- the city’s public schools received an F for K-12 achievement. (No state got an overall A. Even number-one Maryland got a B+.)

Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC

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