State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America is an anthology of 50 essays on 50 states by 50 writers, plus an interview with Washington D.C.’s Edward P. Jones. It’s a great choice for armchair travelers who want to meander casually from place to place.
One caveat: it’s inevitable that a book with so many contributors is bound to be a bit uneven. But discovering those essays that really speak to you makes State by State all the more satisfying.
For me, the essays that work best are those written by people who love, live, or have lived in the state they’re writing about. I found it much more satisfying to read about Joshua Ferris’s childhood vacations to Florida, say, than David Rakoff’s poorly researched weekend excursion to Utah. That style of travel journalism just can’t compare with the warm, proud, complex and conflicted reflections by the writers writing about home. But that’s just me. You’re sure to discover essays you love or hate too.
If you decide to read the entire book, I recommend not reading it cover to cover. The alphabetical journey from Alabama to Wyoming isn’t all that magical.
The editors might have thought of a more creative way to organize the essays, perhaps by admission to the Union (Delaware to Hawaii), by toothlessness rate (West Virginia to Hawaii) or roller coasters per capita (New Hampshire to Wyoming). Please note: the statistical tables in the back of the book are completely awesome.
I abandoned the alphabetical approach after getting bored in Arizona. Here’s how I ended up reading it. I highly recommend this more haphazard approach:
First, read about the states where you grew up and where you currently live. I found Carrie Brownstein’s Washington delightful. You may disagree.
Next, check out the authors you know and love, who may or may not be writing about states you know and love. This approach took me to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Rhode Island and Ann Patchett’s Tennessee early in my reading.
Try some authors who you don’t necessarily know or love but whose work you’re curious to sample. This led me to Ha Jin’s Georgia among others.
Still not finished? Try some states where you perhaps traveled briefly for a family vacation, drove through on your way to somewhere else, or have a great aunt whom you have never met. You may discover some real gems. Thanks, Alexander Payne, for making Nebraska seem hip (maybe), and Louise Erdrich, for making North Dakota seem kinda cool.