Letter From Seattle

Cementing a Literary Reputation

Sunday, May 23, 2004


This city is celebrating its smarter-than-thou self with the debut of what architecture critics are calling America's most exciting and important new library.

The Sunday opening of the towering downtown temple to literacy -- described as "a rock-candy masterpiece" (New York Times), "a song of light that changes with each cloud" (Seattle Times) and "a great glass tent . . . that manages the neat trick of seeming exotic but not bizarre" (New Yorker) -- could not be more perfectly timed.

It punctuates a month in which an impartial judge, the U.S. Census Bureau, sanctified Seattle as the nation's best-educated city.

Nearly half of the adult population has at least a bachelor's degree, according to the census figures. That's almost double the national average. Washington, D.C., ranks fourth, while New York is a distant 26th and Newark comes in dead last out of 69 cities. There was a third nationally resonant reminder this month of Seattle's bookish ways.

"Frasier," which won more Emmys than any television comedy, ended an 11-year run that imprinted on the collective American mind an image of this town as a moist playpen for wine snobs, stuffed shirts and opera bores like psychiatrist Frasier Crane and his even fussier brother, Niles.

As Seattle Times television critic Kay McFadden observed, "the real Seattle was grunge and Gore-Tex and the great outdoors." People here in 1993 resented the depiction of their town as a place where condo dwellers with perfect diction cared deeply about the integrity of glaze on crème brûlée.

But in the years since "Frasier" went on the air (pulling down consistently huge ratings here), many of the Crane brothers' highbrow affectations have become mainstays of urban life.

The Seattle Opera, with a new and critically acclaimed building, says it has the highest per capita attendance in the nation. Seattle Arts & Lectures, a speakers series that specializes in big-name literary authors such as Ian McEwan, describes itself as the most attended lecture program in the country. Pricey restaurants have multiplied rapidly here in the past decade, and Washington state has become the country's second-leading producer of wine, after California.

Much of this has been paid for with high-tech money, particularly Microsoft stock options. In greater Seattle between 1995 and 2002, 20,000 software employees cashed in about $30 billion in options, according to the Washington Employment Security Department.

The kind of money Microsoft was paying lured ever more college-educated young people to Seattle. That, in turn, created demand for more cultural amenities, among them bookstores.

Seattle has more bookstores per capita than any other city, according to a study of literate cities by Jack Miller, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater and a professor of education.

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