This past week, I learned that I live in America’s most well-read city, according to Amazon.com, and for the second year running.
This was surprising news to me although not completely. I do live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, after all, which is a snooty place. This is where power mongers and policy wonks rule, where people speak two and three languages – including “acronym” – and hold multiple degrees. And they make sure you know it.
So allow me to indulge that DC snootiness for a moment (“when in Rome…”) by remarking that the list of most well-read cities seems odd at first. DC is not ranked (ironically), nor are other cities you might expect like New York or Chicago or San Francisco. Alexandria ranks first followed by Knoxville, TN (a college town, ok) then Miami, FL (huh?). Fourth is Cambridge, MA (home of Harvard and MIT, back to making sense), and fifth is Orlando, FL (Disney World??).
Amazon’s rankings were based on the per capita sale of books, magazines and newspapers (both in print and electronic format) for cities with a population of 100,000 or more, so smallish cities held an advantage.
Also, Amazon ranked by quantity and attempted no subjective judgment of quality, which is fair. The best-selling book in my city was Gone Girl, a genre-bending thriller that I enjoyed. But the second best-seller was the Fifty Shades trilogy, which I won’t read because it sounds like Twilight with whips (Amazon won’t judge, but I will). My point is, us Alexandrians shouldn’t be too smug about what took us to the top.
But we will, because we’re part of metropolitan DC – again, smug and snooty are what we do. But I have a confession to make, Dear Reader: I’m not that well read, especially for a writer. Several friends of mine here and elsewhere – both writers and non-writers and at least one sibling – have read many more books than I.
So for my own sake as well as yours (unless you’re bookish, in which case you can stop reading this post), I’ve come up with 7 Ways to Cope With the Well-Read. Bookworms are everywhere, in your life as well as in mine. And most of them, I should add, aren’t remotely arrogant about it and don’t mean to make us feel small, they just love their books and need to talk about them. The rest is our problem. To help, consider the following:
1) Accept that well-read people are likely superior to you in several ways.
Not helpful? Sorry. But numerous studies show that reading is overwhelmingly beneficial and comprehensively so. See here, here and here. A paragraph from the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts study sums it up best:
All of the data suggest how powerfully reading transforms the lives of individuals—whatever their social circumstances. Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual’s academic and economic success—facts that are not especially surprising—but it also seems to awaken a person’s social and civic sense. Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed. It is reassuring, though hardly amazing, that readers attend more concerts and theater than non-readers, but it is surprising that they exercise more and play more sports—no matter what their educational level. The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact—books change lives for the better.
Gulp. To quote that master of uplift, George Orwell: “Happiness can exist only in acceptance.” I want you to be happy, Dear Reader.
See point #1. After all, this Survival Guide is a form of self-help, which implies self-improvement… so…
3) Read a “classic” book or two…
I haven’t done a lot of this myself, but certain books are called “classics” for a reason – they’re very good and worth your time. Among the classic book authors I’ve tried, Jane Austen is fantastic, hugely enjoyable and accessible. She’s a good one to start with. I didn’t expect to like Joseph Conrad’s work, but I do, a lot. He was a master stylist even though English was his second language. Same for Vladimir Nabokov, a genius linguist who wrote some of his best works in English rather than in his native Russian; if you’re put off by the lechery of Lolita, then read Pnin, a hilarious book about a bumbling Russian professor teaching at a midwest American college. Among the American greats I’ve read and enjoyed are John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Toni Morrison, and my favorite, Wallace Stegner, a teacher of other great writers and an often-overlooked master of everything (plot, setting, character, point of view, etc.).
4) …But focus on reading what you enjoy.
One of my well-read hometown friends in Pennsylvania inhales books and reads purely for pleasure. When I’ve asked her what she likes to read, she always replies: “everything.” She is my model well-read person because books give her so much joy; her face lights up every time you ask her what she’s reading. She is one of the most unpretentious people I know, and also one of the wisest (again, see point #1).
5) Make your reading social by joining a book club.
I’m a veteran book clubber. I helped start one that met from 1993 to 1997 – when I last lived in the DC area – and we resumed meeting in 2010 after I moved back. While I lived in Tucson, AZ, I was in two book clubs simultaneously from about 2002 to 2009. I should point out that I’ve often failed to keep up with book club assignments, and you might, too. The best book clubs – the only ones that last, really – will forgive you and will be flexible about members’ busy schedules. Book club discussions can get impassioned and animated beyond belief — one time I did a head-stand in front of my book club to make a point, another time I climbed on someone’s shoulders (don’t ask, I don’t remember, and yes, alcohol was involved both times). The point is, a book club is a worthwhile commitment that can enrich your life. Through them, I’ve discovered some great books and writers, and – most importantly – I’ve formed some of my dearest friendships.
6) Support your local library.
Books – whether in print or electronic form – don’t have to cost you, Dear Reader, as long as you have access to a lending library. As a repository of knowledge, the library concept goes back to ancient times. According to The Washington Post, the city of Alexandria – the one in Egypt – housed the ancient world’s greatest archive of information. Today’s American library system is a jewel of democracy because it offers the gift of knowledge to all Americans for free. Even if you don’t use your local public library, consider donating books or money to it (most public library systems have a non-profit fundraising arm to help support it). Like everything else, library budgets across the country have been cut.
7) Take a break from books and do other things.
Finally, it’s ok to sometimes forget about books and just live. After all, this is part of the well-read person’s m.o.: They’ve learned so friggin’ much from all that reading – point #1 again, always point #1 – that they take time to go out and do some of it. You should, too.