L.A.'s Literacy Rating: Read It and Weep
Los Angeles may be home to scores of writers who’ve won Pulitzer Prizes and consistently top the bestseller lists, a newspaper with a circulation of more than 1 million, and a book-buying population that ranks among the top in the country.
But it still ranks only 54th -- and is tied with Toledo, Ohio -- in a new survey of the nation’s most literate cities.
To get to Los Angeles’ place on the list, in fact, you must wade past Las Vegas (tied for 13th), Newark, N.J. (18) and Wichita, Kan. (39); beyond most other major California cities, including San Francisco (5), Sacramento (25), San Diego (40) and Anaheim (53), all the way down to the bottom 10 on the list, just above Fresno.
Even so -- Toledo?
Reaction in the two cities depended, more than anything, on your geographical orientation.
“My God, that’s not very good,” said Angeleno Ray Bradbury.
“I’ll take it,” said Chris Champion, public relations director for Thackeray’s Books, Toledo’s largest independent bookstore.
Sure, Los Angeles and Toledo might have a few things in common: Both were settled in the 1700s and grew to prominence in the mid-1800s. Both are county seats. And both cities have “One Book, One City” programs, in which residents read the same book and then participate in public discussions.
Toledo started “One Book, One City” before L.A., in 2001, with Mitch Albom’s bestseller “Tuesdays With Morrie.” This year, Toledoans have been encouraged to read “Race Matters” by Cornel West while Angelenos have tackled Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451" and Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street.”
Bradbury, it could be said, may have actually brought the city’s score down a notch or two. He never went to college. The education of a city’s inhabitants was among the criteria used by University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Chancellor Jack Miller when he assembled the list.
Miller, a former professor of education, said he considered a city’s literacy level as key to quality of life. He decided to survey U.S. cities with populations of 225,000 or more, ranking them in five categories -- educational levels; number of bookstores; number of magazines and journals published; newspaper readership; and public support for libraries. Statistics were weighted against a city’s population.
Into his computer went the numbers -- culled from data from sources ranging from the U.S. Census Bureau to the Yellow Pages. Out came the results: Minneapolis ranked as the nation’s most literate city. Seattle was second. San Francisco was the only California city in the top 10.
But 54th? Wasn’t that at least cause for a moment of self-doubt on Miller’s part? “I certainly would not have thought of Los Angeles as being in the top 10,” he said. “But after that, I didn’t know where things were going.”
California State Librarian Kevin Starr, who lives in San Francisco, works in Sacramento and teaches at USC, offered a bit of perspective. The San Francisco ranking he understood: “It’s been a center of books and reading since the 1850s.”
But “no one fully believes that L.A. is 54th in any ranking,” Starr said.
He had another suggestion. In the survey, he pointed out, “the more homogenous the culture, the higher the ranking.” Minneapolis, Seattle and Denver -- all in the top 5 -- have largely Euro-American cultures, Starr said. By contrast, Los Angeles “is an area of some 70 languages.”
Miller said he tried to take an area’s linguistic diversity into account by including foreign-language newspapers and periodicals in cities’ literary profiles. “When you look at the lower-ranked cities, you look at cities with large numbers of immigrants,” he acknowledged. “It’s definitely a situation where people are working hard just to make a living” rather than frequenting bookstores or libraries -- two key factors on the list.
Still -- 54th?
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” said Kerry Slattery, manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, when told about the list and the city’s ranking. “It doesn’t fit anything I can imagine.”
Miller said he has been surprised by the amount of public interest generated by his list -- and the level of public passion for his rankings. Since the survey came out Thursday -- it’s available online at www.uww.edu/cities/ -- Miller said he’s gotten calls from media outlets in many of the cities, some full of pride.
Others, he said, qualified more as sore losers.
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Overall rankings, based on a recent study:
11-St. Paul, Minn.
(tie)-Las Vegas, Nev.
15-Colorado Springs, Colo.
17-St. Louis, Mo.
29-Virginia Beach, Va.
30-Oklahoma City, Okla.
35-Fort Worth, Texas
38-Kansas City, Mo.
(tie)-New Orleans, La.
47-New York City, N.Y.
60-San Antonio, Texas
63-Corpus Christi, Texas
64-El Paso, Texas
Sources: University of Wisconsin-Whitewater