Amazon Most Well-Read City: Is it Really Alexandria, Va.?

What does it mean to be a citizen of most well-read city in America?

Well, according to Amazon, it means you live in Alexandria, Virginia. And it probably means that you’ve read Gone Girl and the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. But that’s just Amazon’s opinion.

Rounding out the top five are Knoxville, Tennessee; Miami, Florida; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Orlando, Florida. Knoxville also holds the distinction of being the city with the most romance novel sales, while Cambridge is considered the top city for entrepreneurs because business and investing books (such as Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Mostand Strengths Finder 2.0) sold extra well there. Knoxville also showed the greatest growth in its reading, jumping from the number twelve spot last year to the number two spot this year.

But what does this distinction really mean? Amazon generates its list carefully. It counts all sales of books, magazines, and newspapers, in both print and Kindle formats, through its site, starting from June 1, 2012, and it only counts sales in cities with more than 100,000 residents. Its list is on a per capita basis, which evens things out for the most part. (That Amazon counts magazines and newspapers intrigues me, but they didn’t release any trends in the sale of e-format magazines and newspapers. I’d almost be more interested to see what cities buy the most e-magazines.)

So where does that leave us?

To say the least, this list is biased. I mean, it’s obviously biased because it’s a company reporting its sales. But in addition, this sort of list favors cities with a weak to insignificant presence of bookstores, because the list overlooks any sales from brick and mortar stores. Of course, bookstores and Amazon have long been at odds — the latest scuffle over sales taxhas been one of the biggest sticking points, but there are other, very obvious points of contention between the two types of businesses — so that Amazon would seek to under-represent physical bookstores isn’t a big surprise. And, as TIME writer Matt Peckham points out, good sales don’t necessarily mean well-read. Just because residents of Alexandria, Va., buy a lot of books doesn’t mean they read a lot of books.

However, we also have to figure out what is meant by “best well-read”. Does this just mean they read (that is, buy) the most books? Should we be snobbish and look at what they read? But if we look at what they read, which genres should we consider? Fiction? Political manifestos? Historical door-stoppers? Amazon uses a fuzzy term and never truly defines what it means. But reporting that Alexandria bought Gone Girl Isand the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and that Cambridge bought business books suggests that Amazon is probably not defining “well-read” as anything specific — just what sells.

But perhaps the most pressing question is how else can we generate a list of the most well-read cities in America. To start with, the New York Times has bookstores report their bestsellers each week. What if the New York Times reported some of their findings? The New York Times reports both print and ebook sales, which, if broken down by region, might give us a better idea of what people are reading, where they are buying it, and how much is being bought. Since variety is fun, it would be interesting to see what kind of list the New York Times could generate — and what city they would crown as America’s most well-read city.

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Gia Coturri

I am an environmentalist deeply interested in literature and politics. I am a grad student at University of North Carolina, Greensboro studying English literature with an emphasis on literature and the environment.

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