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Cementing a Literary Reputation

Sunday, May 23, 2004

SEATTLE

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.

In his study, Miller found that Seattle was second only to Minneapolis as the nation's most literate city, a ranking based on education, newspaper readership, bookstores and library use. Seattle would have been No. 1, Miller said, except for its aging and relatively underused libraries.

That problem, though, is being fixed in what the American Library Association describes as one of the most ambitious library-building programs in the history of the country. Five years ago, Seattle approved a $196.4 million bond issue to renovate 27 branch libraries and rebuild the central library -- all at once. To aid the cause, wealthy locals have tossed in $80 million in private money (notably, $20 million each from Microsoft billionaires Bill Gates and Paul Allen).

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

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