Thursday, February 7, 2013

Itty-Bitty Book Review: State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America

Packed with contemporary travel essays, State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, is the most memorable book I've read this year. With rambling narratives reminiscent of William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, this giant anthology tackles all 50 states (you can skip the Washington DC interview).

Weaving together travel, politics and history, it's a tribute to the WPA travel guidebooks published in the 1930s, to which soon-to-be-famous writers such as Zola Neale Hurston, Studs Terkel and Kenneth Rexroth contributed. Published in 2008, State by State is an equally eclectic travel book. Follow along with its writers as they fly in bush planes through the Alaska wilderness, run out of gas in rural Illinois and hang around pawn shops in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Not every essay is a winner, particularly those that superficially skim over the state (Saïd Sayrafiezadeh's "South Dakota) or dismiss it with smartypants snark (Sarah Vowell's "Montana"). But most take an unstinting look at that state's real-deal character, with its beauty spots, flaws and all. Immigrant stories are among the most insightful chapters in the book.

If you haven't gotten around to joining the 50 States Club yet, plowing through State by State - it's over 600 pages long - might just spur you to hit the road.

Related links:
State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America
The WPA Guide to California in the 1930s
Itty-Bitty Book Review: Shadow of a Bear

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