Las Vegas Sun

July 3, 2015

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Reading a lot into ranking

Coming in at 52 of 75 cities leaves room for Las Vegans to improve – but then, they may not want to

So, Las Vegas checks in at No. 52 on a new ranking of the nation’s 75 most literate cities. Are you surprised that we placed so high — and feel free to treat this as an essay question — or a little peevish at being dissed? (Or simply relieved that we beat Bakersfield, No. 73?)

On the one hand, cynics will note that John Grisham’s “The Confession” is the most popular book among Las Vegas-Clark County Library District patrons. Indeed, nothing on the list — all mysteries or thrillers — would be shelved under “literary fiction.” And this city lacks a lot of the infrastructure that supports literate culture, such as the sort of bookstores “where clerks know and love books and hand-sell to their customers,” says Carolyn Hayes Uber, publisher of Stephens Press.

Others, sensing that this study basically recapitulates the “Vegas is the dumbest city” meme we all had fun with a few months ago, will argue that Las Vegas has its own brand of intelligence, not easily measured by library resources, number of bookstores or newspaper circulation. Those are some of the data points crunched by Central Connecticut State University in compiling the list. (Washington, D.C., ranked No. 1.)

“That Las Vegas ranks No. 52 — ahead of Houston, Phoenix and Los Angeles — strikes me as just about right,” says Douglas Unger, UNLV professor and author of “Looking for War: Stories,” among other books. “That Vegas has been dropping a few points every year also seems true.”

Myself, I neither raised an eyebrow in surprise, nor adopted a posture of wounded civic pride. Among my friends I have one who reads 50 or 60 books a year, and another who, when a woman recently tried to recommend a novel, stopped her short: “Oh, I don’t read books.”

So I solicited a few other opinions:

Rick Lax, Las Vegas Weekly staff writer, author of “Fool Me Once: Hustlers, Hookers, Headliners and How Not to Get Screwed in Vegas”: “I spend a lot of time in bookstores, and I strike up a lot of conversations with strangers about books, and I haven’t noticed a difference between Chicago residents and Vegas residents in terms of bibliophilia.” (Chicago clocks in at No. 28.)

Lee Barnes, College of Southern Nevada professor, author of the novel “The Lucky”: “I have over the years observed that even literate people in Las Vegas tend not to read, or to read crap. All anyone has to do is bring up the name of a recent Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winner, and what results is a glazed-eye look and kind of ‘Uh-huh, yeah, but …’ followed by some comment about Harry Potter.”

Tom Bissell, former Black Mountain Institute fellow, author of “Extra Lives”: “I once got into an argument with the head of the magazine section at the Barnes & Noble on Maryland Parkway about whether the New York Review of Books and New York Times Book Review were the same thing. He was adamant that the New York Review of Books was a figment of my imagination. For the dude that runs the magazine section of a huge bookstore to be so certain and condescending about this was kind of incredible. But then I found a really rare copy of Werner Herzog’s ‘Of Walking in Ice’in a used bookstore, so the place isn’t completely illiterate or without interest in books.”

Dave Hickey, author of “Air Guitar”: “The eccentricity of Vegas is that it’s Ivy League smart at the top and statistically smart at the bottom, in the gambling culture. The middle class is very stupid in Vegas, however, mostly because UNLV is a very bad school that doesn’t graduate anyone into the executive class. The rest follows as the day the night.” (In fairness to UNLV, Mr. Hickey, a former professor there, has long been a vocal critic of the school.)

Unger: “Years ago, I remember complaining about what I thought to be a lack of serious local readers, and Robert Goulet telephoned me at UNLV, wanting to talk about what I’d said. ‘You’ve got to remember that Las Vegas is a blue-collar town,’ he argued. ‘A lot of working people can’t find much time to enjoy literature and the arts.’ He was right. We live in a society that pressures our neighbors more and more each day to work harder and longer for ever less money, so how do they have time and leisure to read books?”

Alissa Nutting, author of “Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls”: “Are you telling me that Vegas residents aren’t smart? I’ve had conversations with beginning writers in town who don’t have a college diploma because they make $80,000 a year valet parking. As a point of comparison, one of my friends just graduated with a liberal arts degree from a private college and owes about that much in student loans; his starting salary was $34,000. Who is ‘smarter’?”

Unger: “Literate readers are a small percentage of our society. And I believe it’s always been that way, reinforcing for me what the late great editor, Ted Solotaroff, stated frequently: ‘Those of us who love books are a lot like the early Christians in the catacombs, parceling out among ourselves our beloved bits of literary bread.’ Call me elitist, but really, that’s OK with me.”

Me, too. Anyway, you know who should really be peeved? Henderson.

It ranked No. 63.

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