Has anyone seen the fantastic new book State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey?
Don't let the rather drowsy cover fool you. It's meant to look retro; the editors wanted a modern equivalent of the state travel guides produced in the 1930s through the Federal Writers' Project (part of FDR's Works Progress Administration job creation). That's right, the U.S. government put $27 million into paying authors and artists to create books and art. Can you imagine how that sort of thing would go over today? Just imagine valuing authors and artists enough to want them to continue their work. Stunning.
But the history of this volume is not the great part. What is great is the list of contributors Weiland and Wilsey have managed to pull together: Dave Eggers on Illinois. Sarah Vowell on Montana. Anthony Bourdain on New Jersey. Louise Erdrich on North Dakota. Jonathan Franzen on New York. Jhumpa Lahiri on Rhode Island. David Rakoff on Utah. And many, many more.
You don't have to read the whole thing. Get it, and read about your state. (I did, and although it hurts me to report this, I didn't enjoy the essay about Wisconsin, by Daphne Beal. Ms. Beal talked mainly about the east side of the state and Racine, which is not my part of the state, and she maintains that all Wisconsinites say "soda," not "pop," which is not true.*)
When my duty to my home state was done, however, I went right for Anthony Bourdain's piece on New Jersey, which was awesome (of course), and then I proceeded merrily along to Dave Eggers's piece on Illinois, which blew me away and reminded me, instantly, how I felt upon first reading his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, lo those many years ago, and how I fell in love with him over that book. Who would have guessed that an essay about the state of Illinois (a state Wisconsin natives largely disdain from birth; it's in our water) would have knocked me over? As Eggers says:
"The slogan on all license plates in Illinois, for as long as anyone can remember, has been Land of Lincoln. Everyone in Illinois and all sensible people elsewhere believe it to be the best license-plate slogal of all the states in our union. The closest runner-up would be New Hampshire's fiery Live Free or Die, but that slogan scares children. A license-plate slogan shouldn't scare children and shouldn't include the words 'or die.' A license-plate slogan shouldn't encourage death in the face of curtailed personal liberties. A license-plate slogan should, without threats or hysterics, evoke the moral essence and scenic grandeur of a state, and if possible it should be alliterative and should mention everyone's favorite president." (p. 130.)
I'm still a little in love with Dave Eggers, if you must know the truth.
*It's not just me. Mr. CR deigned to read it, nonfiction though it was, and concurred with my sentiments.