Each year, Dr. Jack Miller of Central Connecticut State University riles up a nation of normally docile bookworms with his survey of America’s Most Literate Cities. The gold standard of rankings with a “which major city is the most down with printed matter?” theme, the CCSU rankings, which considers a number of criteria including newspaper circulation, number of local booksellers, library resources and education levels, are taken seriously by the cities that regularly appear on the list.
For example, it was quite the upset last year when Minneapolis bumped Washington, D.C., from its four-years-in-a-row position at the top of CCSU's most literate city list. Riots in the streets!
And then there's the annual ranking of the Top 20 Most Well-Read Cities in America.
Now in its sixth year, the survey, if you could call it that, is the antithesis of CCSU’s scholarly evaluation in that factors such as library funding and educational attainment don’t matter in the least. Rather, the rankings, published by e-commerce behemoth Amazon.com, are based purely on which cities with populations of over 500,000 purchased the most reading materials — books, magazines and newspapers in both Kindle and print formats — online at Amazon. Essentially, the list judges the bookishness of a city by sales data and nothing more.
Heck, hyper-literate Minneapolis doesn’t even make an appearance, which is because the city's population is shy of a half-million and not because folks aren’t buying the works of Umberto Eco or casserole cookbooks on Amazon.
Under-construction biodomes at Amazon's massive new campus in Seattle, a city that also happens to buy a ton of books, newspapers and magazines from the e-retailer. (Photo: Peter Alfred Hess/flickr)
Per Amazon, the title of America’s Most Well-Read City goes to the company’s hometown, Seattle — a city that Amazon may or may not be slowly destroying while also supplying its denizens with reading materials.
This is the second year in a row that Seattle has claimed the top spot. In 2013 and 2014, both years in which Alexandria, Virginia, reigned supreme, Seattle appeared way down the list in fourth and 13th place, respectively. It took a couple of years. but that’s quite an impressive leap forward. But more on that in a bit.
So then, is a specific book responsible for helping the Emerald City ascend to the title of most well-read city in all the land?
According to Amazon sales data, Marie Kondo's minimalist living manifesto, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing," was the top-selling print title in Seattle this past year.
First published in Japan in 2011, it makes perfect sense that a bestselling book revolving around shedding possessions and squeezing into small spaces is selling like hotcakes in Seattle. For one, domestic purging is an awesome activity for drizzly days, which Seattle has plenty of. But more topically, the city’s utterly insane real estate climate (thanks Amazon!) has prompted many longtime residents to downsize or rethink their current living situations, largely out of necessity.
Marie Kondo's meditation/manual on clutter-purging is the top- selling print book in Seattle, Amazon's top print book-buying town. (Photo: taz + belly/flickr)
Case in point is my own aunt, a Seattle native who just made the move back after living in Boise and Dallas for a couple of decades. From the sounds of it, she did some serious KonMari-ing prior to her move. Major relocations, of course, are always prime opportunities for bidding adieu to excess stuff. But my aunt was also dealing with a serious reduction in square footage given that housing in Seattle isn’t as spacious or affordable as it was when she left some years ago.
Increasingly cramped and expensive Seattle isn’t the only town in which “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” was the top seller in print from April 2015 to April 2016, the period in which Amazon analyzed sales data. The book, which MNN alumnus Lloyd Alter called "required reading for everyone considering a downsize," was also the top-selling print title in San Francisco, which shouldn't come as a surprise given the similarly dire housing situations in both tech boom-y cities. It was also the top seller in Tucson, Arizona, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, which placed as Amazon's seventh and ninth most well-read cities, respectively.
“The Girl on the Train,” a thriller from British author Paula Hawkins, was the top seller in both print and Kindle formats in several cities including second place-ranked Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas (fifth); and San Diego (10th).
Las Vegas, which placed sixth overall, is apparently gaga for the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series and adult coloring books. Makes sense.
Baltimore, the former “City that Reads,” came in between San Diego and Charlotte, North Carolina, in 11th place. Neighboring Washington, D.C., always such a high performer on CCSU’s “most literate” rankings, placed third.
Baltimore (aka 'The City That Reads') came in 11th place in Amazon's rankings of 20 American cities with populations over 500,000 that purchased the most reading materials online. (Photo: Owen Bryne/flickr)
So what happened to Alexandria, the “Gone Girl”-loving town considered as the most well-read city in the nation until Seattle came along and stole the spotlight? It doesn’t appear anywhere on the rankings published this year or in 2015.
The reason for Alexandria's absence is simple — and can also help explain Seattle’s ascent to the top of the list and the exclusion of famously bookworm-y burgs over the past couple of years. Prior to the 2015 edition of the Top 20 Most Well-Read Cities, Amazon included cities with 100,000 or more residents in lieu of a minimum of 500,000. In turn, previous top contenders with populations over 100,000 but south of a half-million such as Knoxville, Tennessee; Berkeley, California; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Ann Arbor, Michigan have been excluded.
Weirdly, Minneapolis, overachiever that it is, doesn’t seem to appear on any of the pre-2015 rankings even though it seems an obvious shoo-in. I’m not sure what’s going on with that. Maybe the most literate city in America doesn’t shop for books on Amazon all that often.
And completely absent from Amazon’s 2016 rankings are America’s two most populous cities: New York City and Los Angeles. Chicago and Houston, the third and fourth most populous cities, straddle Nashville in the 17th and 15th spots, respectively.
Here's the entire list of Amazon's Top 20 Most Well-Read Cities for 2016:
1. Seattle 2. Portland, Oregon 3. Washington, D.C. 4. San Francisco 5. Austin, Texas 6. Las Vegas 7. Tucson, Arizona 8. Denver 9. Albuquerque, New Mexico 10. San Diego 11. Baltimore 12. Charlotte, North Carolina 13. Louisville, Kentucky 14. San Jose, California 15. Houston 16. Nashville, Tennessee 17. Chicago 18. Indianapolis 19. Dallas 20. San Antonio
Did your city make the cut?