Monday, June 08, 2009

State by state

I picked up State by State this weekend. This is not the sort of book you read all at once, but might make for a great going off to bed book. It consists of 50 essays (and one interview with Edward P Jones about DC) about each state. In each case, the writer is given a small amount of space to write something about an entire state. Not easy!

I've been looking at the states with which I have a personal connection first, which means I have read VA, NC, and OR so far. I liked that tack that the VA and NC authors did, which was to explore an important element of the state's culture. In the case of VA (drawing no doubt on his Confederates in the Attic research experience) Tony Horwitz talks about Virginia's fascination with it's, often bloody, past. In the North Carolina section, Randall Kenan talks about hogs, which allows him to get to farming, the environment and BBQ. Well done. I was less taken with Joe Sacco's Oregon piece. For one he uses a comic format. Given the space available, you can't do much with a comic. Then he focuses on Portland. Portland is great and all (I live here, so I better like it) but Portland is to Oregon, as New York is to New York State. Not terribly representative.

I've just started on William T. Vollman's California section. It has a humdinger of an intro.

It says something about our changing America that once upon a time, an art-friendly governmental organization commissioned one volume about each of our fifty states; whereas this book, inspired by the WPA's example, has been commercially published and allows each state only a few thousand words. Fortunately, mass culture, with its big box warehouses of the landscape, language and mind itself, has already destroyed so many differences, there is less to say anyhow. Of course, the ambiance of Florida still varies from that of Montana, Hawaii's from Alaska, but aren't their television programs the same? Accordingly, I dare to hope that a generation or two from now, if a sequel to this sequel comes out, its writers will have life even easier.

Ouch, that's the way to start an essay! Keep in mind he has just written a thousand page plus book on the Imperial Valley alone, but it is distressing for fans of regional diversity.

The Powells version comes with a new Out of the Book Documentary of the book.


Citizen Reader said...

LOVED this book. Only read parts of it when I last had it from the library (and was very disappointed by my home state essay), now I need to get it back again.

Hm, never been a big Vollmann fan. Now I may need to re-evaluate.

Tripp said...

Mine is library too, which means it will probably go back before I read all the ones I want to read. I just noticed that Alexandra Fuller wrote the Wyoming piece and that John Hodgman did Massachusetts. I have to read those now.