Thursday, July 3, 2014


I’ve long believed that reading across America is one of the best ways to experience it. The Fourth of July celebrates a nation, but really it’s a community-by-community display of attitudes and priorities. Fireworks? A parade? A lawn party? A slo-pitch softball tournament? A symphony? What say you? No, you have to travel to truly rejoice in America.

As long as there have been travelers, there have been attempts to put the experience into words. But sometimes what has already been written can improve the ride. On my first-ever cross-country RV excursion in 1995-96, I began by reading a trilogy of road classics to get me in the mood – On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Travels with Charley by Steinbeck and Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. But I soon found an even better way to give myself a sense of place – by regionalizing my reads.

So while we were parked for the night in Montgomery, I journeyed through the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I could almost taste the red Alabama dust. In Missoula, I dove into A River Runs Through It and began to understand Montanans’ relationship with the landscape. On the banks of the Mississippi River, I spent some time with Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and realized the myriad stories at every bend in the great waterway.

Each and every time, I was infused with a greater understanding of where I was.

I could ponder Thomas Wolfe’s description of North Carolina in Look Homeward, Angel (“clumped woodlands, the bending sweep of the fields, the huge flowing lift of the earth-waves”) and then appreciate the scenic poetry myself during my drive the following day. I could read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire in Utah’s Arches National Park and then anticipate a sunrise consisting of a “flaming globe, blazing on the pinnacles and minarets and balanced rocks.”

So for the would-be traveler out there—either by vehicle or vicariously—what follows is a list of 50 must-reads, one for each state. The list, of course, is subjective. In fact, a compilation of books NOT included would feature the likes of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (John Behrendt, Georgia), Empire Falls (Richard Russo, Maine), and Walden (Henry David Thoreau, Massachusetts). But then I would have to discard some of these:

  1. Alabama: To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
  2. Alaska: Coming Into the Country (John McPhee)
  3. Arizona: The Monkey Wrench Gang (Edward Abbey)
  4. Arkansas: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou)
  5. California: Cannery Row (John Steinbeck) 
  6. Colorado: Plainsong (Kent Haruf)
  7. Connecticut: Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates)
  8. Delaware: Blinded (Kashamba Williams)
  9. Florida: Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Thurston)
  10. Georgia: Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
  11. Hawaii: Hawaii (James Michener)
  12. Idaho: The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon (Tom Spanbauer)
  13. Illinois: The Jungle (Upton Sinclair)
  14. Indiana: The Magnificent Ambersons (Booth Tarkington)
  15. Iowa: The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (W.P. Kinsella) 
  16. Kansas: PrairyErth (William Least Heat Moon)
  17. Kentucky: Icy Sparks (Gwyn Hyman Rubio)
  18.  Louisiana: A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)
  19. Maine: The Cider House Rules (John Irving)
  20. Maryland: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Frederick Douglass)
  21. Massachusetts: Home Town (Tracy Kidder)
  22. Michigan: Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides)
  23. Minnesota: Main Street (Sinclair Lewis)
  24. Mississippi: Absalom, Absalom (William Faulkner)
  25. Missouri: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain) 
  26. Montana: A River Runs Through It (Norman Maclean)
  27.  Nebraska: O Pioneers! (Willa Cather)
  28.  Nevada: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson)
  29. New Hampshire: A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
  30.  New Jersey: American Pastoral (Philip Roth)
  31. New Mexico: The Milagro Beanfield War (John Nichols)
  32. New York: The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
  33. North Carolina: Look Homeward, Angel (Thomas Wolfe)
  34. North Dakota: Peace Like a River (Leif Enger)
  35. Ohio: Winesburg, Ohio (Sherwood Anderson)  
  36. Oklahoma: Pigs in Heaven (Barbara Kingsolver)
  37. Oregon: Sometimes a Great Notion (Ken Kesey)
  38.  Pennsylvania: Rabbit, Run (John Updike)
  39. Rhode Island: My Sister’s Keeper (Jodi Picoult)
  40.  South Carolina: The Lords of Discipline (Pat Conroy)
  41. South Dakota: Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Kathleen Norris)
  42. Tennessee: The Orchard Keeper (Cormac McCarthy)
  43. Texas : The Last Picture Show (Larry McMurtry)
  44. Utah: Desert Solitaire (Edward Abbey)
  45. Vermont: South of the Northeast Kingdom (David Mamet) 
  46. Virginia: The Confessions of Nat Turner (William Styron)
  47. Washington: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Sherman Alexie)
  48. West Virginia: The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls)
  49. Wisconsin: Population: 485 (Michael Perry)
  50. Wyoming: Close Range (Annie Proulx)

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