Book Review: State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America

Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey, eds. State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. 569 pp.

This collection of original essays is an attempt to duplicate–in concentrated form–the classic WPA 1930s state guides. The editors solicited pieces about each of the 50 states, and conclude with a conversation about Washington, DC.

The essays take many different approaches. Most are memoir types, with the author placing him or herself within the state–novelist S. E. Hinton’s short take on Oklahoma is a perfect example. Others are more innovative, like Jonathan Franzen’s New York piece, which is a mock interview with various official representatives of the state, Joe Sacco’s brief graphic novel exposition of Oregon, and Alison Bechdel’s more travelogue-y, but also personal, graphic take on Vermont.

After the essays, you’ll find 30 tables that rank the states in several categories. Just for fun, here are the ones that had Nevada in the top 5:
Population Increase 1950-2000 (1) 1,148.3%
Foreign-Born Population (4) 19.1%
Population Born Elsewhere in U.S. (1) 71.5%
Population Claiming No Religion (t-5) 20%
Violent Crime Rate (4) 741.6/100,000 residents
Divorce Rate (2) 6.6/1,000 residents
Suicide Rate (t-2) 18.9/100,000 residents
Highest Monthly Temperature (2) 104.5 degrees

All in all, State by State is a great read, with wildly different kinds of writing on very dissimilar states. It’s a literary version of a tray of appetizers–you won’t satisfy your hunger with any single item, but taken together you can get pretty full.