Cementing a Literary Reputation
There is a uniformity of education levels in Seattle that contributes to its outsized appetite for books, the arts and perhaps even for crème brûlée. Besides ranking first in the nation in college-educated residents, Seattle ranks third in the percentage of high school graduates (90.5 percent).
"Seattle is an exception," Miller said. "The rule is cities like Washington, New York and Boston, which attract people with college degrees but also have this other large population, with low income and low education. Seattle doesn't have much of that." (Eighty percent of D.C. residents have a high school degree or higher, which gives it a national ranking of 36th, tied with Kansas City, Mo.) What Seattle has is a brainy and relatively homogenous population (70 percent white) with a pronounced tendency toward goody-two-shoes civic-mindedness.
Jaywalking is rarely seen here but almost always frowned upon. Compared with New York or Washington, drivers seem excessively polite -- even though Seattle has some of the worst traffic in the country. In the name of free speech, strip clubs are allowed -- but limited to four. To deal with homelessness, the city is opening a wellness center.
And in Seattle's passion for all things cultural, civic-mindedness often manifests itself in a striking eagerness on the part of residents to do lots and lots of self-assigned homework.
Nancy Abramson, for example, says she does not attend a lecture, poetry reading or play in Seattle without first reading at least one work by the featured artist.
"It makes everything so much more enjoyable," said Abramson, 52, who for 16 years has been attending Seattle Arts & Lectures, rarely missing a speaker and never failing to do her homework.
Her book club -- book clubs are very big here -- coordinates its selection with the schedule of speakers at the downtown lecture series, which is often sold out. Traveling authors often express astonishment at the size and attentiveness of crowds here.
To prepare for Billy Collins, the author and recent U.S. poet laureate who lectured here in January, Abramson and her book-club friends read a collection of his poems.
During his talk, when he read one of those poems, "Dharma," they noticed that Collins dropped two words -- "holy diapers" -- from a line about Gandhi.
"We jabbed each other and said, 'He changed it, he changed it!' " Abramson said.
At cocktails after the reading, she and one her of friends confronted the poet.
"What happened to 'holy diapers'?" they asked.
Collins apparently had not been briefed on the conscientious literacy of the Seattle bourgeoisie.
"He was surprised," Abramson said. "He told us, 'I can't believe anybody noticed.' "
-- Blaine Harden
© 2004 The Washington Post Company