Jim Booth at the blog The New Southern Gentlemen recently took issue with a Business Insider called “The most famous book that takes place in every state”. Mostly, he takes issue with BI‘s nomination for his own state of North Carolina.
I have no opinion one way or the other about Nicholas Sparks, and given that my reading tastes runs to both genre and short stories, I’m probably not the most qualified person to weigh in on which full-length book should represent which state. But of course I couldn’t resist checking what they picked for California. I don’t know what I was expecting to see — but it wasn’t what they chose:
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.
Even if I stipulate that Steinbeck is the appropriate author (a fine choice, but not necessarily the only one), I wouldn’t have picked East of Eden. Why not Of Mice and Men? Grapes of Wrath is probably Steinbeck’s most famous novel, but it’s about Oklahomans on their way to California, so I guess it doesn’t count. It’s my taste in reading, I guess, but the most I can say about East of Eden is that it’s longer than Of Mice and Men — and better known than Cannery Row, another Steinbeck that came to mind, but then again, I live here.
Actually, I wouldn’t have picked Steinbeck at all. I would have chosen one of the classic San Francisco or Los Angeles-based noir novels: The Maltese Falcon; Red Harvest; The Big Sleep; Farewell, My Lovely; heck, even The Thin Man. All famous, all very California.
I guess Steinbeck is more “literary,” but there were a lot of selections in the Business Insider article that weren’t. And there were a lot of admittedly well-known books that still felt like odd choices to me — not that I could necessarily come up with an alternative. I mean, I enjoyed The Lovely Bones, but is that really the most famous book set in Pennsylvania? I have a hard time believing that. What about John Updike’s Rabbit series?
Business Insider has a companion article, “The most famous author from every state”, which at least had the concrete criterion that the author had to be born there, but is still unsatisfying because where one is born isn’t always where one’s most famous writing is set: I think of Dashiell Hammett and Philip K. Dick as California writers, but neither were born here. Jack London was, but his most famous books are set elsewhere. The California entry was Steinbeck, again.
Some other famous California-set books that come to mind:
- Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston
- Anything by Philip K. Dick.
- Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion. Ok, they’re essays, but still. Didion is California-born, as well.
- Our Lady Of Darkness, Fritz Leiber
- The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan. Tan is also California-born.
There’s way more, no doubt, but that’s what springs to my mind at this moment.
American readers: What did you think of the book and author chosen for your state? Who and what would you have picked?
Book Labyrinth at the Last Bookstore, downtown Los Angeles, 2014. Photo by Johnnydeezwax. Source: Wikimedia
Cover of The Maltese Falcon, First Edition. Source: Wikipedia