I've hitchhiked cross-country three times; I've lived and worked in 13 states, and have visited them all with only one or two exceptions. My favorite reading when flying is a collection of essays - for obvious reasons. State-By-State is exactly the kind of book I would pick up in paperback at the airport. [I have a hard cover copy.]
I ordered this sight unseen and I was not disappointed. It is very enjoyable reading. To get a sense of whether the various authors hit the target set by the editors, I first read those essays of states where I had spent the most time. Except for the essay on South Dakota (essayist: Saïd Sayrafiezadeh) I was very impressed. I thought the following were particularly excellent: North Dakota, South Carolina, California, and Iowa. In fact, every essay was superb, except Saïd''s. I have no idea why the editors accepted his self-centered, smug out-of-town review. I particularly admired the ability of William T. Vollmann (CA) to cover so much territory in so few pages (his was one of the longer essays at 13 pages) and let me re-live my halcyon days in paradise.
It was probably only me, but I did not recognize the names of any of the authors, except for one (Randall Kenan, NC). It appeared most of the essayists were new authors, and I did not recognize any of their novels. That may not be surprising because with a math and science background, I only began a serious reading program in 2002 and have not gotten more recent than the 1920's with some exceptions (Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Anaïs Nin and Ernest Hemingway, being the most notable). If not a novelist, the essayists were more than likely to be on staff or contributors to the New York Times or The New Yorker. Even when I learned one (Tony Horwitz) had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize (1995), I did not recognize any of his books.
The editors did include 30 tables of demographic data, everything from cigarette consumption to breastfeeding rate to suicide rate at the end of the book. The book would not have been diminished had these tables not been included. Somehow the tables seemed to make the book appear more like a reference book. Perhaps it was the glaring, bold font.
Examples of how the essayists got it exactly right (for the most part):
Cristina Henriquez (TX) noted that Texans make a note of whether one is born a Texan or if one is transplanted. Henriquez got that exactly right. Christina came from Iowa.
Anthony Bourdain (NJ) reminds us how the state has become a "punchline" but at the same time, when he travels in the US, he notes that every state now looks exactly like New Jersey (malls, franchise eateries, Victoria Secret superstores, and Home Depots). Touché.
Jonathan Franzen (NY) reminded me again why so many people have a negative view of the Big Apple and New Yorkers in general (it's likely most people are not aware there is more to New York than the city). The author simply transcribed an interview with the governor's and mayor's straphangers and, to some extent, the main men themselves. I think Franzen took the money and ran, providing us a glimpse of "a New York minute."
Jack Hitt (SC) explains the difference between Charleston and the rest of the state. Superb. This is perhaps the best of the best essays for hitting the editors' mark. New Yorkers have nothing over the Charlestonians when it comes to snobbery, according to Hitt. For proof he notes: the residents say "the two rivers that shape the peninsula of downtown Charleston - the Ashley and the Cooper - come together to form the Atlantic Ocean."
Louise Erdrich (ND) notes that the density of her home state and mine is between nine and ten people per square mile, and most of them live in three "big" cities. If you avoid these population centers, she says, you can travel in a blissful abeyance of humankind. You can help me out by doing a word search for me, but I believe Louise is the only essayist to use the word "blissful" when writing about his/her particular state.
If you have not lived in or experienced the majority of American states, you might not enjoy this book. If you think you know the American states, pick this up at the airport bookstore on your next trip. If it's a business trip to a state you've not been before, this might give you some cocktail chatter for the icebreaker.
Just skip Saïd''s essay on South Dakota. Go straight to South Carolina.