America’s Most Literate Cities: San Antonio not one of them
Mark Twain’s observation that “a person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read” immediately begs the question: if people can read, why don’t they? That question is the crux of Central Connecticut State University’s recent study, “America’s Most Literate Cities.” The findings, which put San Antonio at 62 out of 75, are disheartening to say the least. CCSU used key indicators such as newspaper circulation, library resources, educational attainment and Internet resources to rank cities from most literate to least. What’s interesting about this study is that it calls into question the practices of those who can already read. Are the literate making full use of the literary and information resources already available to them? According to the study, the answer is a worrisome no.
Although San Antonio ranked considerably higher in two specific indicators—Booksellers (48) and Internet (41)—the city still lurked in the bottom 15 in Education, Libraries, Newspapers and Periodicals. Though we fared better in the number of retail, rare and used bookstores per 10,000 in population keep in mind that bookstores as we know them now may sell anything and everything from lattes to the collected works of Gabriel García Márquez. Next time you go to the nearest retail bookstore for a chocolate chunk cookie and a hot cocoa with whipped cream, buy a book will ya?
On the other hand, the fact that San Antonians order more books online and visit the city’s internet version of the newspaper more often is a positive trend indeed. One key indicator that doesn’t quite line up with this trend is the newspaper circulation findings; San Antonio’s overall newspaper circulation numbers are down. So, are the people of this city flocking to the internet version of the newspaper because paper circulation is down or is paper circulation down because the people of this city are flocking to the internet? Will we ever tire of the chicken or the egg causality dilemma? Not if it continues to be so much fun.
CCSU president Jack Miller asks another interesting question: “What difference does it make how good your reading test score is if you never read anything?” The reasons people give for not developing a disciplined reading practice are much too numerous and complicated to do them justice here. Consider this, though: If San Antonio had an efficient, comprehensive mass transportation system that allowed many more commuters to travel in comfort, wouldn’t readership go up? Sure it would. What else would you do for the sixty minutes you’re being chauffeured to and from work? The San Antonio Light Rail proposal should be renamed the San Antonio Book Light Rail. The name falls trippingly from the tongue.
The fact that Americans are reading less of everything—books, newspapers, magazines, periodicals—bears out in a disengaged population. Even more worrisome than the fact that people are reading much less is the fact that what consumers are reading is light on substance. Readership of fiction and nonfiction is down; newspapers, once venerable sources of information, are skinny with meager fare; and magazines are little more than colorful how-to-please-your-whatever guides. We are drenched with tidbits about matters that don’t really matter while the nutrient-rich meat we need is buried underneath all that glittery fluff, albeit deliciously addictive.
The conversation now centers on whether the people of this city find value in fostering a culture of literacy and what that says about San Antonio’s overall civic health. But what’s at stake when the literate don’t practice their literacy? If regular physical exercise is good for the body, isn’t rigorous intellectual exercise good for the mind? Jack Miller worries that the “general decline in Americans’ critical literate practices…will have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications for the quality of life in our nation.” He’s not the only one who should be worried.