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I've been reading and enjoying Edward Glaeser's "Triumph of the City," which celebrates cities for making us "richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier." "Smarter" is the word that most caught my attention. Glaeser talks about cities as historical centers of publishing: Gutenberg couldn't have created his large and expensive press without financial backers and assistants to help build and operate it (i.e., he couldn't have built it alone in a barn in the countryside); and books are more easily sold where, of course, there are people to buy them. Why do people in cities want to buy books (or magazines or newspapers)? Because cities are "natural" centers of exchange, of movement, of connection—of ideas as much as capital.
Glaeser's book got me thinking about the reading habits of the country mouse. It makes sense that people in cities would read more (possibly much, much more) than people in rural areas, not only because we have greater access to literature and more money to buy it with, but because reading is also about living in a place where there is a culture of talking about literature. And conversations will always be noisiest in cities.
I decided I wanted some cold, hard stats on the matter last night, and I started Googling—but it seems no one's done a study on precisely this question (if you know of one, please share!). So the evidence will have to be circumstantial. Exhibit A is the list of America's Top Ten Most Literate Cities, a study done each year by Central Connecticut State University. I submit the list not because it's interesting (Washington, D.C. is at the top this year, followed by Seattle, and not at all followed by New York—it's done by the percentage of the population that meets a variety of factors, and cities with large populations—particularly large immigrant populations—aren't poised to score high), but because it is a list of cities. Would it even be possible to ask the question of rural areas?
We know that the rural population of the United States (about twenty-one per cent of the country) is much less educated, much poorer, and much older than the population in urban areas. So it stands to reason that people living in these areas read less—but how much less? Do they read at all, and if so what do they read? Rural librarians are perhaps in the best position to answer these questions, since the library might be the only place people in rural areas can access books. The Association for Rural and Small Libraries has interesting information on its site, but nothing thoroughly detailing reading diets and habits.
What librarians and everyone else seem to agree on these days is that the thing people in rural areas need most is not books but the Internet, which is great for reading if one thinks of reading as directly correlated with conversation and connectivity. I quite enjoyed this piece in the Times about Coffeeville, Alabama, a town the Internet has been slow to penetrate. Kim Severson, the author of the piece, shows how stark the divide is:
As the world embraces its digital age—two billion people now use the Internet regularly — the line delineating two Americas has become more broadly drawn. There are those who have reliable, fast access to the Internet, and those, like about half of the 27,867 people here in Clarke County, who do not. In rural America, only 60 percent of households use broadband Internet service.
The article came hot on the heels of an announcement by Obama that he planned to raise $28.7 billion to bring wireless Internet to ninety-eight per cent of the U.S. What's fascinating to me about the Coffeeville article is the way people speak about the problem: government types argue that e-commerce is the big reason these poor rural areas need the Internet, but Coffeeville residents put it in terms of conversation and connection: "Ninety-five percent of the people in this county who want public water can have it, but people can’t even talk to each other around here,” one woman says. A seventeen-year-old says, "I'm missing a whole lot. I know that."
This is all really interesting in light of the fact that America is becoming less and less rural, both because we continue to move en masse into the city and because the city continues to sprawl out over us. Glaeser talks about how Gutenberg's press allowed books to be sent out into the countryside, making more of the population "urban." The Internet qualifies as, in some sense, urban sprawl, and I will be fascinated to see how this translates to reading habits (going on the assumption that where the Internet goes, increased literacy goes). If Obama's plan works and the Internet really does become readily available to nearly everyone, will rural readers become instantly more urbane and interested in the books, newspapers, and magazines city readers talk about? Will they visit blogs like this one, where a city-oriented conversation about books takes place? Or will their Internet reading break down along geographic lines (as much of ours does)? If we all become readers of the same literature will we all then be "urban," no matter where we live? The questions are endless.