Edinburgh, my home for the past decade, is the world’s top literary city. National Geographic has just said so, therefore it must be true. Look at the evidence: our train station is named after a novel; one of our football teams is named after another; we boast the world’s largest monument to an author; our streets have birthed everything from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Harry Potter; and every evening in a pub on the Royal Mile, a drunken American tourist will attempt to recite some Robert Burns poetry. Well done us.
But before my fellow well-read citizens start to raise the bunting made out of their voluminous collections of Sir Walter Scott and Muriel Spark, let us pause a moment. On second glance, this triumph seems rather half-baked.
Our rosette has been awarded after the same amount of rigour applied to judging a finger painting competition amongst toddlers.
Not that I’m picking holes in the list. London, Dublin, Paris, St Petersburg, Stockholm, Portland, Washington D.C., Melbourne, and Santiago are all very worthy entrants. Actually, I lie. I am picking several massive holes in it.
It’s just that the rationale of what constitutes a literary city is rather muddled. Washington makes the list at number eight by virtue of it being home to the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world. Yet this is also the city whose last contribution to a work of literature was to inspire Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. By that rationale Sweet Valley, with its famous high school, should be at the top of the list.
And as much as I enjoyed Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, the reason why Stockholm makes the cut, surely playwright Frederick Ibsen’s contribution to culture in the last 150 years would sneak Oslo ahead in the Scandinavian stakes. Give me posh, repressed Norwegian ladies with suicidal tendencies over a computer hacking Swedish Goth any day.
And any list of this kind that omits New York renders itself obsolete. It is like ranking Francis Ford Coppola’s greatest films and leaving out The Godfather in favour of Jack.
And what about Kolkata in India, home to Rabindranath Tagore and a place where books are still common currency? Or Prague, the city of Franz Kafka and where in their first election post-Communism the citizens elected a playwright as president?
What other city, town or village would you put on this list and why? Where does the geographic and the literary entwine?
Whilst we collate a much more robust collection of cities, we in Edinburgh will rejoice on our current placing with half a heart. For that is all that was used to place us the top of this list in the first place.