July, 2013 – Seattle is notable for many things, not the least of which are the iconic sights, structures like the Space Needle, the EMP (Experience Music Project Museum), Mount Rainier, Pike Place Market, Puget Sound, and dozens of others. The presence of wonders, natural and man-made, would be enough to attract the hundreds of thousands of visitors to this gem of the Pacific Northwest, but would they be enough to sustain a person through life? It would be similar to a bookshelf containing only a couple dozen books, fact and fiction. I can attest to the bliss of re-reading favorites, but eventually one wants to cast off the plots of the known for the excitement, innovation, and imagination of the unknown. And that is where Seattle excels against her municipal sisters.
Born of 12 immigrants (the families Boren, Yesler, Broad, etc.) who came from the east over 150 years ago, Seattle has belched, billowed, and fished her way into a top spot in the country’s list of literate cities. With the single exception of the nation’s capital, Washington D. C., where we would hope to find folks who read, analyze, and interpret, Seattle has held the second to one other place for several years. The study, done by Central Connecticut State University president John Miller, is base on data related to the number of bookstores, library resources, newspaper circulation, overall education, and internet facilities and strength.
I am one of those people who smiles broadly whenever I see someone reading a book, particularly children. My enthusiasm for this underappreciated activity and skill often leads to the question, “What are you reading?” It is an acceptable imposition. Readers, knowing another by the query, respond with a title and a short review. Whether this results in an ongoing conversation depends on how much coffee is left in the cup, the length of the bus ride, and/or whether the reader still has a finger holding the book open at a particularly rapt moment in the story. “Lars, leaned over, a wolfish smile on his face, and then…though they had met but moments ago, he….” Well, that would probably be Barbara Cartland at her ellipsis best. A rarer specie than the adult reader is the under -18 variety. This atypical class, the child who devours books, can occasionally be spotted at garage sales rummaging through boxes in search of Hardy Boys tales, in the children’s section at the now-many-fewer chain bookstores catching up on Harry Potter, or, cross-legged on the floor at the local library.
Libraries, racks packed with books, CDs, magazines, movies, and resources of all descriptions, dot every corner of our Emerald city, from the Broadview Branch at 12755 Greenwood Avenue N., to the Rainier Beach Branch far to the south at 9125 Rainier Avenue S. The public library system in Seattle is a blue chip recommendation to those thinking of making a move. Libraries, filled and open for business are a sign of safety, affluence, and education. It is in such hallowed halls that the patient observer will see parents leading children to the stacks or consulting with a librarian on a favorite author’s newest title. One day, arriving at the Magnolia Branch after a 1.5 mile hike up Dravus, I watched a young boy of 10 or so check out a stack of books, exit the library on his own, hop onto his bike, and with the loops of his bookbag wrapped around the handlebars, race off toward home. He will grow up, soccer, video games, and smoking pot notwithstanding, understanding the joy of following a story from start to finish, of becoming friends with people who only exist in books, taking in reams of authentic data woven through a fictional tale, and of decoding conversations that start on one page and end a dozen pages later, moving from one character to another as though someone was passing a hot coal back and forth. He, and all those others who cherish the written word, will become members of a elite with broad vocabularies, the ability to spin a tale, share a idea, explain a concept, and work the language like a weaver turning out capes for a king.
Should the desire for a new book strike like a yen for chocolate, you don’t have to wait for stores or libraries to open. Seattle boasts a bouquet of Little Free Libaries, tiny structures the size of two breadboxes, perched atop a sturdy pole and planted to send out rhetorical roots on an easement adjacent to the builder’s home. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest rolling up to get your fix in the middle of the night, flashlight in hand, but technically, these literary outposts (pun intended) never close. There are at least two Little Free Libraries, each with 20 volumes of classics and newer volumes, in Magnolia alone, with four dozen more scattered all over the area.
Readers know more, and Seattle is full of readers. Thus, while she will probably not ever win the “highest population” award, the city will always have more to offer than extraordinary views, eye-catching architecture, and steep hills.