The political maps I’ve been seeing all week during this election cycle reminded me of a different sort of U.S. map that my sister emailed to me a while back. That map was created by Brooklyn Magazine to find a literary novel that best evokes the essence of each of the 50 states. The creators acknowledge that it’s impossible to completely “capture the spirit of something so unwieldy as a state.” Agreed; yet, the visual of this map is certainly a pretty picture and the concept of finding the quintessential literary novel for each state is definitely provocative.
In looking at the map, the literary pairings of novels with states were curious to me. In particular, I had strong reactions to the choices for the two very different states where I’ve spent the bulk of my life: Kentucky and Massachusetts.
For Kentucky, the map shows Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel Beloved, which is an incredible work of literature with its backstory set on a plantation in Kentucky. I read it years ago and what has stuck with me so clearly from that book was the vivid and sometimes supernatural experiences of the characters, although the Kentucky depicted did not necessarily feel to me like the state that I knew so well.
I grew up in Kentucky, and for me, no writer captures the essence of Kentucky the way Wendell Berry does in most of his work. His use of language and character evokes a sense of places I’ve been and people I’ve known. As for a novel’s setting that portrays my hometown of Lexington a tee, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards would be my choice.
The map’s Massachusetts selection of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath caught me by surprise. In my reading of that masterful novel, I personally fixated on the events that transpired during the protagonist’s glitzy magazine internship experience in New York City. For me, Ann Patchett’s Run comes to mind when I think about a novel distinctly set in the Boston I have come to know well from living in the area for the past two decades.
Looking at the literary US map was an excellent reminder to me of how everyone brings their own experiences and associations to their reading. Part of what’s so great about sharing our reading experiences is learning what others find interesting in a book, and also learning more about ourselves in the process.
What do you think of this map? Do you have associations with certain states that jump out more clearly for you than these choices?