I’m a reader. I read all kinds of books, mostly fiction. Sometimes a friend will suggest a book for me to read, or I’ll check out the New York Times Book Review on Sundays, or the Staff Picks shelf at my favorite independent bookstores. It’s all pretty random.
But recently I’ve become interested in the idea of place in literature. The way that, in some novels, setting is character. Think Dickens’s London — the characters who come alive in that city’s debtor’s prisons, courts of law, counting houses and blacking factories. Those characters are unique reflections of Victorian London, where coal smoke continuously chugs into the damp air and lingers, trapped by fog, where there are no child labor laws and where poverty prevails. They could not exist anywhere else. And what about modern fiction? Are there good examples of novels today that evoke their setting in a way that makes them come alive, makes you feel like you’ve been dropped into a different world, a distinctive place with a flavor all its own? I believe so. I’ve read some. And I’m on a quest now find one or two from each of the United States. Hence this literary road trip. I’ll start with Delaware, the first state, and keep going until I get to Hawaii. I’ll choose books to read by looking up independent bookstores in the state, calling them up, and asking for a recommendation.
I’m excited but also a little concerned that, with the increasing homogeneity of the United States, those characteristics which distinguish one place from another have blurred over time. Drop me off in a shopping mall anywhere from California to Pennsylvania and it’s likely I’ll have trouble figuring out where I am. What distinguishes one city or state from another today when the same big box stores, retail chains and coffee shops are everywhere? When we’re all connected by television and the internet. Where we can wake up in one time zone and go to sleep in another just by taking a short plane ride. Where children grow up in one state, go to college in another and find their first job in yet another state? I’m hoping to find out and write about it here. [Read more…] about Literary Road Trip