I was poking around on The New Yorker last week with my brand-new, indulgent, digital subscription when a recent Book Bench post caught my eye: “Inside Amazon’s Best-Read Cities”, by Macy Halford. Her post is a response to a recent press release from Amazon.com regarding the “Most Well-Read Cities in America” based on per-capita book sales in cities of 100,000 people or more.
I can’t speak to how anyone else will react to Ms. Halford’s thoughts, but I confess to being by turns amused, irritated, and ultimately outraged. However, deep underneath her arguments are no doubt certain valid points about the conclusions Amazon reached:
The purchase of reading material does not in and of itself mean that a city’s population is well-read. Those books might have been purchased as gifts; or, perhaps those residents, like me, have an ever-growing stack of books they feel they should read because the Hipsters and the Bright Minds working at Any Independent Bookstore or places like The New Yorker are reading them and say that you, too, should be reading them, but which in fact end up gathering dust and are moved from one residence to the next with the best of intentions and a growing weight of guilt. Further, one can be well-read without purchasing books by using his or her local public library.
Of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Amazon concludes, “Not only do they like to read, but they like to know the facts,” citing the number of non-fiction titles purchased by residents of these cities. As the press release points out, the city is home to both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; but no indication is given regarding the percentage of those non-fiction titles which are textbooks, or whether textbooks were excluded and the numbers were based entirely on narrative non-fiction titles.
Other dodgy conclusions include the identification of Boulder, Colorado, as living up “to its reputation as a healthy city” because of the quantity of Cooking, Food, and Wine books purchased by its residents. Were they all health-food cookbooks, diet cookbooks? Without context, I would alternatively conclude this might be an indicator of a Foodie City.
These were just some of my initial reactions to Amazon’s press release, evidence of my deep-seated disdain of the use of statistics to draw conclusions without providing contextual details. But far greater is my irritation with the thoughts shared on the Book Bench blog:
“If you live in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, San Antonio, etc., don’t let this list make you feel bad. Perhaps you have greater access to bookstores than people in other cities…” Amazon is a bookstore – to which everyone in the cities she lists might have access, through an Internet connection. Hasn’t one of the greatest (and sometimes worst) things about the Internet been access to information? Online bookstores free me from having to chance what may or, more often, may not be in stock on the shelves of my local bookstores. It seems to me she’s insinuating that residents of these cities simply wouldn’t do business with Amazon, for reasons undisclosed.
“As for other cities on the list, my interpretive powers fail me: yes, most of them house universities, but does that really explain why Miami, Orlando, and Hotlanta made the cut?” Why shouldn’t these cities have “made the cut”, exactly? I can’t help thinking that perhaps the bottom line here is that New York City does not appear on Amazon’s list.
“Maybe these places, which have warm climates and generally relaxed atmospheres, buy more enjoyable books – a few Sue Graftons to take to the beach, a couple barbecue cookbooks for the summer kitchen, stuff like that.” So they shouldn’t be considered “well-read” cities because, as she conjectures, the residents are buying enjoyable books?
I don’t understand where this idea of “good” comes from: “good” books. What makes a book fantastic for me might make it dull-as-tombs for someone else with different reading tastes. In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows wrote, “Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.” I believe that every book has its reader, and every reader has his or her book. What I do not believe – and cannot condone – is the denigration of another’s reading tastes that may differ from one’s own. If literacy statistics are to be believed – that as many as 50 percent of American adults are unable to read at an eighth grade level – I’m just happy to see that there is still interest in books, and that people are still reading.
So, read – read what you like, and don’t apologize for it. Just read.