Saturday, October 4, 2008

State by State

Here's a wonderful new book: State by State: a Panoramic Portrait of America, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. The book was inspired, in part, by the Federal Writers Project, the program established by FDR in 1935 that produced the American Guide Series of extremely detailed guides to the 48 states and selected cities and regions. The FWP was conceived as an employment program in response to the estimated 26,000 artists who were put out of work by the Great Depression, and had 6600 individuals on its payroll. Weiland and Wilsey's is a more modest undertaking, with personal 10-20 page portraits of each of the 50 states written by 50 writers. It is not a guide book per se, but seeks to convey some of the distinct flavor of each of the states; there's also a page of basic reference facts for each state (demographics, geography, origin of name, etc.), 30 tables of comparative statistics to describe "The 50 states in numbers", and 50 photos, each writer having selecting a single image to convey something essential about his/her state. The roster of writers is impressive; George Packer, William Vollmann, Benjamin Kunkel, Rick Moody, Joshua Ferris, Ha Jin, Dave Eggers, Sarah Vowell, Jonathan Franzen, Louise Erdrich, Jumpha Lahiri, and Jayne Anne Phillips, among others. The book has an unabashedly patriotic look, red, white and blue and sprinkled with stars and stripes; an eagle holds a banner in its beak that reads "Take Pride in Your Country." But don't let that put you off! This is not the cloying jingoism of presidential speeches (called "spreadagleism" in the 19th century), but the warm and glowing love of/pride in country, landscape and people expressed in songs like America the Beautiful or This Land is Your Land. This book is a perfect gift for people whose parochial, insular, small-minded perspective prevents them from grasping the vast cosmopolitanism of the U.S. - people like Horace Engdahl of the Swedish Academy. (see post below)

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