“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
I saw an article this week that’s a pretty good explanation of where we are as a culture. Business Insider published an article called “The most famous book that takes place in every state” that purports to provide readers with – well, the information indicated in its title. On the face of it this seems like a clever idea – it promotes reading and gives a little shout out to each state. Given the culture we live in, promoting reading is certainly a good idea, and giving every state a nod for its literary contributions is democratic in a way that we need more of.
Well, as Robert burns said in “To a Mouse,” “The best laid plans….” Though perhaps, given the BI article, Dave Marsh’s observation about Kiss Alive II is more apropos: “Here’s a bad idea gone wrong….”
Some of the results offered for “most famous book that takes place in every state” are laudable. Some are arguable. Some, however, are atrocious – ill-informed in ways that make one despair for the future.
Case in point for atrocious and ill-informed: the selection for “most famous book that takes place in each state” for North Carolina, where I live, is A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks. Now I find Sparks a terrible writer. In fact, here’s my review of A Walk to Remember, the book chosen by Business insider as its NC representative. But my main complaint isn’t with Sparks, who is surely the richest writer in North Carolina. Given that this list was compiled by Business Insider, choosing a book by NC’s richest writer has a certain capitalist logic to it. But the list is supposed to be “the most famous novel that takes place in each state,” not “the novel that sold the most copies that takes place in each state.” It’s the ill-informed decision making process of this list – which choosing A Walk to Remember as NC’s most representative novel exemplifies – that’s most problematic for me.
As I mentioned above, there are laudable choices: Alabama’s choice is To Kill a Mockingbird; Misissippi’s is The Sound and the Fury; Montana’s is A River Runs Through It. These are famous books and books that look to have a long life and that will be read and taught and discussed in the future. The same is true for a couple of other choices on this list, Missouri’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and New York’s The Great Gatsby.
But one (well, me) has to wonder about other choices similar to North Carolina’s: Louisiana’s Interview with the Vampire; Tennessee’s The Client; Washington’s Twilight. I puzzled about the decision to include books that fall into that category I’ve called “the big book,” : books that have performed impressively in the marketplace, with books that we think of as classics like those noted above.
Here’s Business Insider’s explanation of how the books for this list were chosen:
After scouring the internet and surveying our colleagues on their picks, we rounded up the most famous book set in every state in America.
So, as best as I can determine, the books on this list were chosen by surfing the internet (I assume the search term used was “books set in Alabama/Alaska/Arizona” etc.) and asking people in the break room if they knew a book set in Indiana/Illinois, etc. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that perhaps the search for “the most famous book that takes place in each state” could have been a tad more rigorous.
So, to help the folks at BI on their way to a revised list, here’s a recommendation for the most famous book set in North Carolina. (I am fully aware that there are some very fine books set in NC, including a couple of mine), but I doubt that any knowledgeable North Carolinian, including NC transplant Nicholas Sparks himself, would argue that this is a superior choice for most famous novel set in the Tarheel state. It’s also written by a native, as all the classics above except Gatsby are (though Gatsby’s narrator tells the story of a NY transplant, after all, and the novel begins and ends in the author’s home state of Minnesota).
The novel I recommend to the folks at BI as NC’s most famous novel set within the state is called Look Homeward, Angel and is written by an author who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald (who are all on the list): Thomas Wolfe. Given the current fascination with hyper-realistic fiction, Wolfe is due for a reassessment, and Business Insider would be doing literature and themselves a service to remind readers of one of 20th century American literature’s premier authors.
So there, BI. North Carolina is fixed for you. I suspect that the next state you’ll be hearing from is Washington.