Why I'm not upset that Seattle is ninth on Amazon's 'best-read' list

The number of books we buy is not the same thing as the number of books we read.

Seattle may be the hometown of Amazon.com, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the readers in my very literate city are buying lots of books from the giant e-tailer.

America’s most literate city? A bunch of new data from Amazon.com pegs it as Cambridge, Mass. Runners-up are Alexandria, Va.; Berkeley, Calif.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Boulder, Colo. My city of Seattle came in at #9, while techcentric Bellevue, Wash., a short commute from Seattle, scored its own spot at #15.

Of course, “best-of” lists are never so simple. The Amazon data only counts Amazon book, magazine, and newspaper sales since Jan. 1, 2011, on a per capita basis in cities with more than 100,000 residents. I have to wonder if Portland, Ore. (#19) would have scored higher if we could have factored in sales from independent bookstores. There’s always a healthy crowd and a line at the registers at Portland’s landmark Powell’s bookstore. Then, how about towns with strong library systems? Would Seattle, which regularly dukes it out for the #1 spot on other literacy lists, have fared better if the list accounted for the Seattle and King County library systems? King County is one of the top library systems in the country by circulation – those are a lot of books that people aren’t ordering through Amazon.

The Amazon list is dominated by college towns, notes Techflash.com, and commenters at several sites asked what the list would look like if Amazon factored out textbook sales.

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“If you're a cash-strapped college student looking for books, wouldn't you prefer buying from Amazon than your campus bookstore?” wrote a commenter on a New Yorker blog about the list.“My roommate would regularly score "international" and "used" copies of his textbooks off Amazon for less than a buck each. (You'll note that Amazon doesn't index these cities by the profit they're making, but simply the number of orders...)”

And that was only the beginning of the dissection. As one Mashable commenter finally suggested, “The revised equation should be: Amazon sales; minus textbooks; adjusted for book stores per capita; noting household income adjusted by region. Seeing a genre breakout would also be interesting.”

It would be interesting, but what would it ultimately mean in terms of literacy? The number of books we buy, after all, doesn’t mean that much compared with the number of books we read, or reread, or discuss with friends, or study in-depth. Sometimes the most important factors are the ones that are hardest to quantify – or, as a beloved book once put it, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Seattle writer Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com

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