Shelf Life

Less bookish?

The cast of characters populating Barry Moser’s book of engravings includes Jane Austen. The cast of characters populating Barry Moser’s book of engravings includes Jane Austen.
By Jan Gardner
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2011

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In the annual America’s Most Literate Cities report, Boston slipped from No. 8 in 2009 to 12 in 2010, while Washington, D.C., replaced Seattle in the top spot.

John W. Miller, president of Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, has been compiling the rankings for the nation’s 75 biggest cities since 2003. The rankings are based on six factors, including a city’s educational level, library resources, and the number of magazine publishers. What does the latter have to do with a city’s literacy? One might wonder. Yet if not for Boston’s No. 3 ranking on that measure, the city’s overall standing might have fallen even farther.

The most sobering finding is the number of independent bookstores per capita: Boston ranked No. 61. Once upon a time Boston was known for its bookstores. In a sign of the times, Boston ranks No. 5 in Internet resources, which include online book purchases as well as online newspaper readership.

In an overview of the study, Miller wrote, “What matters most is not whether the rank ordering changes but what communities do to promote the kinds of literacy practices that the data track.’’ One bright spot is the Boston Book Festival, the city’s single biggest public display of affection for the reading life.

Fascinated with faces
In a career that has spanned 40 years, Barry Moser has illustrated 200 books, among them editions of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’’ and the King James Bible. Long interested in the character of creators, be they writers, artists, or composers, Moser once told an interviewer, “The human face is almost as individual as a fingerprint. It fascinates me to no end.’’

Moser’s new book “One Hundred Portraits’’ (Godine) gathers a cast of characters through the ages, with an emphasis on British and American notables. Moser, who lives in Western Massachusetts, works with darkness, light, and lines to achieve faces that carry a sense of life’s burdens and beauties as his subjects lived them. Ann Patchett writes in the foreword that she welcomes Moser’s portraits of novelists as an opportunity to learn more about the souls that animate their works.

Second set
The one-year-old Brighton-based Madras Press recently published its second set of four books of fiction, each about the size of a CD case. Among the authors are novelist Andrew Kaufman, National Book Award nominee Ken Kalfus, and Ben Marcus, who is chairman of the creative writing program at Columbia University. The fourth offering is a reprint of the late Donald Barthelme’s “A Manual for Sons,’’ published as a short story in The New Yorker and again within his novel “The Dead Father.’’ After the main characters in the novel read “Manual,’’ it is cast into the fire. This shiny new edition deserves a better fate. Details at www.madras

Coming out
■ “Tick Tock’’ by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge (Little, Brown)

■ “While Mortals Sleep: Unpublished Short Fiction” by Kurt Vonnegut (Delacorte)

■ “I Love a Broad Margin to My Life” by Maxine Hong Kingston (Knopf)

Pick of the week
Karen Vail of Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich recommends “The Lake of Dreams” by Kim Edwards (Viking): “When Lucy Jarrett returns to her childhood home in upstate New York, she is forced to confront the ghosts of her past and must come to terms with her present, including confronting her long-withheld grief over her father’s death under mysterious circumstances.’’

Jan Gardner can be reached at