Back when I was still in school, there was a saying that ran something like this: “All the dumb horny college kids go to Florida for spring break. All the smart horny college kids go to New York for the Model United Nations conference.” So I signed up for MUN and headed off to Manhattan, where I found that it was true. The part about the smarts, anyway. Large-brained, politically active students from across the land gathered to write resolutions, make speeches, and save the world, or at least the model version of it, for a full week. When it was over, my little team of community college policy wonks, representing the humble interests of Botswana, was named an Outstanding Delegation alongside those from Harvard, Columbia, and the like.
Having had this experience, I retain a particular fondness for the committee on which I served, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. I didn’t do much to prepare ahead of time (for a while the only entry in my research notebook was a Doonesbury cartoon) but I learned a lot along the way, some of which has actually stuck with me. One of the things the organization does is declare World Heritage Sites in an attempt to preserve and promote culture; among the thousand or so such sites on the globe are the medieval masterpiece of Mont St. Michel on the Normandy coast of France and the island of Rapa Nui off the coast of Chile, the sole resting place of the monolithic moai statues.
In recent years UNESCO has also established the Creative Cities Network, recognizing locations that have a special focus on various cultural industries. Honored cities include Santa Fe (for Crafts and Folk Art), Seville (for Music), Sydney (for Film), and Östersund, Sweden (for Gastronomy). The creative category of interest to us at Northwest Book Lovers, of course, is Literature, and as we’ve written about here more than once, the literary community in Seattle is currently planning a bid to join Edinburgh, Iowa City, Reykjavik, Melbourne, Dublin, and Norwich as official UNESCO Cities of Literature. While there’s been a fair amount of buzz about the project, I’m not sure anyone’s posted specifics about what the designation means, so let me try to rectify that now.
The general criteria are as follows:
- Quality, quantity and diversity of editorial initiatives and publishing houses;
- Quality and quantity of educational programs focusing on domestic or foreign literature in primary and secondary schools as well as universities;
- Urban environment in which literature, drama and/or poetry play an integral role;
- Experience in hosting literary events and festivals aiming at promoting domestic and foreign literature;
- Libraries, bookstores and public or private cultural centers dedicated to the preservation, promotion and dissemination of domestic and foreign literature;
- Active effort by the publishing sector to translate literary works from diverse national languages and foreign literature;
- Active involvement of media, including new media, in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products.
- The city consistently lands in the uppermost reaches of the list of most literate cities in the US.
- From Fantagraphics to Sasquatch Books and beyond, Seattle has a burgeoning publishing industry.
- Literature is present at every level of scholarship, from the MFA program at the University of Washington down to First Book Seattle‘s efforts in pre-K.
- International authors make regular appearances here thanks to Seattle Arts and Lectures and many other organizations.
- Small, medium, and large independent bookstore are thriving locally, and so is the library system. Seattle voters recently approved the largest library bond issue in US history, one which doubled the square footage of the entire system and created a world-class central library downtown. Even when faced with a global economic slump, Seattle voters have continually chosen to put their money toward keeping library doors open.
- Regarding the existence of “an urban environment in which literature, drama, and/or poetry play a central role,” I’ll rely on anecdotal evidence. I was involved in a conversation not long ago about this topic, and someone cited a house in her neighborhood that had a special mailbox near the sidewalk filled with poems, free for the taking to anyone who passed by. “Oh, you must live in Wallingford,” came the reply. “No, Beacon Hill,” she said. I just smiled, thinking of yet another such installation down the street from me on Capitol Hill.
As for the active involvement of new media in promoting literature, well, you’re reading this online, aren’t you? The defense rests.
The details of this year’s application process won’t be published until sometime after the middle of this month, so right now the Seattle campaign consists of a lot of good intentions and a bare-bones presence on the web. The concrete for the foundation has been poured, but it hasn’t hardened yet, in other words. While you’re waiting for it to cure, you can get an idea about where this is all going by taking a look at the application and video that Reykjavik prepared for its successful 2011 bid. Re-envision those sights and sounds as set in Seattle, and you’ll begin to see the possibilities that have been dancing in my head for months. Stay tuned.
James Crossley is a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island. Despite his Model UN alumnus status, his hometown has yet to be declared a World Heritage Site.