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Subject to debate: The most famous book set in every state

October 14, 2013|By Michael Hiltzik
  • William Faulkner, the author of "Light in August" and "Absalom, Absalom!", is shown. How did Mississippi manage to deserve him?
William Faulkner, the author of "Light in August" and "Absalom,… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Literary lists are made to provoke debate, and this list from Business Insider of the most famous book set in every state (and the District of Columbia) is a clever way of starting 51 parlor disputes at once. 

The list has two major flaws (another subject for debate). One is that listing "famous" books rather than "best" books makes the whole enterprise a little watery, since a book's fame can come from extraneous factors, such as its author's notoriety or a movie or TV version.

The other is that the list seems to have been compiled by people who don't read books. "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" for Kansas? Not only is this book by an upstate New Yorker not really about Kansas, its fame comes entirely from the movie. How did they miss Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood"?

The list does inspire a few intriguing takeaways.

To begin with, isn't it fascinating to contemplate the uneven distribution of great literature around the country? All it takes is one or two bards to raise a state from literary obscurity. Mississippi is the best example of this: A state that is poverty-stricken in almost every sense, from per capita income to the crabbed soul of its political leadership, has perhaps the greatest literary tradition in the country. Business Insider names William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" as its choice, but obviously almost any Faulkner novel fills the bill. I'd go with "Light in August" or "Absalom, Absalom!"  This is what comes of having Yoknapatawpha County within your state lines. Next to Faulkner, of course, is Eudora Welty: Any state that can claim her "Losing Battles" or the great short story "Why I Live at the P.O." has its literary fame made.

The same goes for New Jersey, whose bard is Philip Roth. Business Insider unaccountably names Junot Diaz's "Drown" as its choice for New Jersey. How can that be, when there are "Goodbye, Columbus" (a novella), "The Ghost Writer," and Roth's last book, the harrowing "Nemesis," to choose from?

Alabama lucks out with Harper Lee. "To Kill a Mockingbird," obviously. 

At the other end of the scale, my former home state Rhode Island doesn't seem to have a literary spokesperson, except perhaps for Thornton Wilder ("Theophilus North"). Business Insider goes with a book by Jodi Picoult. I'm obviously not her target market.

The list misses a bet by choosing some Dan Brown concoction for Washington, D.C. It should have tapped into the deeper well of political intrigue in the district's literary history -- "Advise and Consent"? The paranoid "Seven Days in May"? Or if you prefer to go upscale, you could pick Gore Vidal's "Lincoln."

That's just to start the conversation. The fun of lists is all about complaining about what the list-makers got wrong. If you have a favorite pairing of state and book, feel free to put it in the comments.

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email.


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