"One place comprehended can make us understand other places better." So wrote Southern novelist Eudora Welty in her essay "Place in Fiction," and it's a concept well worth thinking about in an era in which communities and countries feel paradoxically fractured and all-encompassing, in which people feel torn apart and thrown together, all at once. At times like these, it is not a bad thing to step away from the bigger picture and focus on something smaller, as a way of re-orienting yourself in this world.
And what better way to do that than by reading? While Welty was referencing the importance of place in fiction, there is little doubt that its importance in nonfiction is similarly essential. The very best writing about a place can bring the reader a whole new understanding of a life different than their own, as well as, per Welty, a better grasp of their own place in the world. Here then, are some of the best pieces of nonfiction from every state in America. (Plus D.C., naturally; and with a special shout-out to New York City, because, obviously.)
On this list are biographies, essays, memoirs, reported histories, a volume of oral history-based poetry, and, ok, one book that's a fiction-memoir hybrid that I just really, really wanted to include because of how much it has informed my own desire to lose myself in the woods of upstate New York (what's up, I Love Dick). Some of these works are comprehensive in their scope of a place, most focus on smaller things—a political campaigning event, say, or an ultra-exclusive restaurant, in order to get a better idea of the larger forces at play; some revolve around tragic pasts and the painful present, others are simply straight-up funny, addressing the trivialities, the mundanities, of a time and place. Some of these pieces were published as recently as a month ago, others date back a century or more. None of them is a completist view of the place they reference, partly because that would be impossible, but mostly because it's the fragments I'm interested in, the infinite pieces that, once put together, form a whole.
Everything here offers readers a chance to get to know a place with which they might not be familiar a little bit better, to understand where it is that we all come from, and, perhaps, even where we're going. And, at the very least, learn a little bit more about the secret life of Martha Stewart.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson
“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others.”