To read or not to read: That is the question.
Almost all Americans can. But do we?
In Scottsdale the answer is a resounding yes. In Mesa, maybe a little less so.
That’s the judgment, anyway, from a Midwestern university that computed how much people read in America's 79 largest cities.
Scottsdale ranked 19th on the list of “America’s Most Literate” cities published this week by the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Mesa came in at No. 65.
Barbara Peters, owner and founder of The Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, carved her niche 15 years ago in a town whose educated populace had money and time on its hands. But although her store and an ancillary publishing operation have thrived, she thinks people in general are reading less now.
“A huge amount of it is competition from the electronic media,” Peters said. “That sort of stuff is passive. It’s not engaging the intellect.”
Jack Miller, chancellor of UW-Whitewater and author of the survey, said literacy is an important measure of a city’s quality of life. But most surveys gauge raw reading ability, rather than how much of it actually goes on.
“We measure reading in this country almost exclusively by school test scores, rather than looking at the real goal of whether we’re encouraging lifelong reading habits in people,” he said. “This study looks at a city’s overall investment in that goal.”
He picked five broad criteria, each with several sub-categories, for his survey: Educational attainment, library resources, the number of bookstores, the number of periodicals published in a city and newspaper circulation.
Scottsdale’s high rank was fueled in large part by a population whose average education was second-highest on the list.
Scottsdale Public Library director Rita Hamilton said, “This is a highly educated community with over 50 percent of the people having a college degree, and I think that definitely contributes to the level of reading that we see in this community. And the other reason I would point to would be the great library system that we have.”
Scottsdale’s library resources were 20th-best on the list, and it ranked 10th in the number of bookstores.
In one category, however, Scottsdale was dead last. That would be newspaper readership, a category led by media-savvy Washington, D.C.
That Mesa fell into the lower tier of “literate” cities was part of a pattern, Miller said. Eighteen of the bottom 20 cities are in Sun Belt states that Miller noted all have had soaring populations with lower-than-average education levels.
Library resources have strained to keep up with growth, he said. Mesa ranked 29th in educational attainment and 56th in libraries.
Molly Rice, a Mesa Public Library administrator who has spent 25 years in the system, said, “People’s appetite for literature here in Mesa is pretty healthy.” And while budget cutbacks have forced the system to stop buying videos and music CDs, Rice said, there’s still money for new books.
But it’s not just the latest pop-culture potboilers that draw library patrons, she said. “I was working telephone reference the other day and somebody called and asked me about ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ ” — a classic, multivolume history published in the 18th century.
Sarah McGovern, a manager with 10 years’ experience at the Bookman’s Used Books, Music and Software in Mesa, said books account for 60 percent to 70 percent of her store’s revenue, even though video games, movies and music are sold there.
“Books still seem to be a very solid seller,” McGovern said. But she said the industry as a whole is worried that reading has declined as the population ages.
That has ominous implications, said Peters, who believes lack of reading is “developing a nation of people who just passively follow (computer) systems or orders and can’t solve problems.
“Reading is one of the most useful skills.”