Americans love lists - of the top 50 colleges, the top 10 recording artists, the top 100 movies of the millennium, and on and on. These lists sell a lot of magazines, because there’s always room for disagreement about the rankings that some expert or editor has put together.
So we can’t say for sure that the latest list of America’s smartest cities is correct, but it’s food for lively debate. Especially since there are other lists of our brainy metropolitan areas that have completely different rankings.
The latest list, by the online bookseller Amazon, doesn’t exactly use the word “smartest” to describe cities. It calls the top ones the most “well-read,” basing that conclusion on sales of books, magazines, newspapers, and electronic tablet readers.
Assuming that people actually read the books and periodicals they buy, there would seem to be a logical connection between buying these things and a community’s overall smarts.
It probably won’t surprise you that six of the top 10 cities on Amazon’s list are big college or university towns: Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University, finished second. Berkeley, California, where the research-heavy University of California campus is located, came in third.
But the winning community - the one with the most voracious appetite for books and newspapers and such - has only two or three small branch campuses of larger colleges, plus a theological seminary. Alexandria, Virginia, though, does sit just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., where a lot of smart Alexandrians work.
In fact, another list of smart places, the 2011 “America’s Most Literate Cities” ranking by Central Connecticut University, has the city of Washington right at the top. Its creators write that there appears to be a connection between wealth, as well as literacy, in achieving community brainpower.
Yet gritty industrial cities such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and ones that rarely make the headlines such as Knoxville, Tennessee, and Bellevue, Washington, finished in the Top 20 on Amazon’s list of “Most Well-Read” U.S. cities. You can bet that they’re promoting it, too.