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Michael Russo

Take one part flawed research criteria, one part ignoring the obvious, mix generously with the brutal truth, and you have Central Connecticut State University's annual ranking of "Most Literate Cities in America." Once again, Bakersfield is dead last on this list of the 76 American cities with a population exceeding 250,000.

First, the brutal truth. Some statistics suggest that upward of 25 percent of Kern's population is functionally illiterate. A low-wage, labor-intensive workforce as well as a low educational attainment rate and a high number of non-English speakers are often cited as factors that contribute to this figure. Even for those who can read, it is no secret that bookstore sales and newspaper circulation have been dwindling for the past decade, that school and county library budgets have been severely impacted, and that locally we haven't been "early adopters" of the new digital book technology.

Still, I question CCSU's methods in determining its rankings. It considers six categories, including size of library systems, presence of bookstores, educational attainment, digital readership, and circulation of newspapers and other publications. What these figures don't capture are the heart and spirit of a community. Instead, they look at our insular, working-class community, which has been inordinately beaten down by recession (leading to budget cuts and reduction in private investment) and conclude that our community must, therefore, be illiterate.

Let me enlighten CCSU on the community I know, the community not reflected in its study:

We are one of the few U.S. communities with a locally owned newspaper, as well as many niche community publications. Unlike many other cities, not only are our national bookseller, independent bookseller and public libraries still open, they each engage the community daily with free activities, readings, signings and events.

Our annual One Book, One Bakersfield, One Kern citywide reading program, in conjunction with CSU Bakersfield, has risen to amazing heights. We have two high-quality city magazines. Local authors continue to publish and the local poetry community is thriving.

The Kern Adult Literacy Council and our schools are actively attacking our high illiteracy rate, while the Kern Reading Association's annual Young Authors' Fair exposes thousands of children to live authors every year (plus has them create their own "book").

First Book Bakersfield and other community organizations distribute thousands of free books to underprivileged children each year, and our public and private colleges are turning out more degreed graduates than ever before.

Our schools are actively engaging students in the love of reading, from Accelerated Reading and Battle of the Books programs, to reading across the curriculum. Our private high schools are moving to digital textbooks, and indeed, as prices decline and innovation improves, more citizens are embracing new reading technologies.

Local business leaders and politicians continue to recognize the challenges, and, as the economy slowly improves, are providing resources to this critical issue.

As a bookseller in this community for the past 24 years, as well as an educator and parent, I see daily the many opportunities my city has to improve upon its literacy record. However, unlike Central Connecticut State University, I also see daily the heroic efforts our citizens make on behalf of literacy.

Michael Russo has been the co-owner of Russo's Books since 1989. He also teaches at the Kern High School District's Regional Occupational Center.