Alabama: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans
In Agee and Evans’ masterpiece, a work on tenant farmers in Alabama becomes a meditation on the very nature of journalism and reporting, while also remaining a staggering portrayal of rural life during the Depression.
Alaska: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Christopher McCandless’ journey into Alaska would be his last trip, and in Krakauer’s hands, it is a moving study of a man outside society, looking to heroes like Henry David Thoreau, and finding great beauty before the terrifying emptiness.
Arizona: My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue by Samuel Chamberlain
Cormac McCarthy looked to Chamberlain’s memoirs when he was writing Blood Meridian, and the rogue had stories to tell about brutal fighting on the border of Arizona and Mexico.
Arkansas: Cash by Johnny Cash with Patrick Carr
A pleasure of an autobiography (kudos to Carr, presumably), as it reads like Johnny Cash is speaking directly to you, plain and true. Hearing about his childhood in Arkansas is a delight.
California: The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston
If you care about nonfiction, you’ve read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, so let’s go with another, more idiosyncratic California book. In Kingston’s memoir, she writes lyrically and beautifully about her childhood, growing up in California as the daughter of Chinese immigrants.
Colorado: Whiteout by Ted Conover
Conover can write evocatively about riding the rails in America or being a prison guard at Sing Sing, so when he turns his eye on the characters that make up the playground and nightmare that is Aspen, we get a picture of what it’s really like to be Rocky Mountain high.
Connecticut: Girls of a Tender Age by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
In this vivid and devastating memoir of growing up in blue-collar Hartford in the ’50s, Smith writes about growing up with an autistic brother at a time when a serial killer also lurches into their lives.
Delaware: Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics by Joe Biden
Do you really want to hear anyone else discuss Delaware besides our Vice President, who is clearly Delaware’s finest son?
Florida: Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston
“America’s penis” is a complicated state; we sure could put some crazy true-crime book here, or Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, but let’s talk about Hurston, who gave us an impeccable piece of Florida fiction (Their Eyes Were Watching God). This autobiography takes her from a childhood in rural poverty to the height of the Harlem Renaissance.
Georgia: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
A true-crime murder mystery in haunted Savannah, with a cast of characters that’s nearly legendary, Berendt’s first book was a cultural monster and one of the bestselling nonfiction books of all time.
Hawaii: Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama
Where might Obama’s first book rank on the long list of presidential biographies? Pretty high, we’d argue. For one, it’s a great story. What makes it compelling is that it was clearly written by a guy who was not yet on the road to the presidency, who had no idea he’d be President of the United States, so it’s strikingly honest about growing up in Hawaii and the role of race in America.
Idaho: The Boys of Boise by John Gerassi
A 1965 study of a 1955 scandal that shocked Boise, Gerassi’s book looks into the truth behind what was being described as a “homosexual underworld” of sin and vice. Necessary history, still relevant today.
Illinois: Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman
Something amazing happened in Chicago with Chess Records. Men who came from nothing, working as sharecroppers down south, including Muddy Waters, ended up creating rock ‘n’ roll with the way they played their blues guitar and harmonica. Howlin’ Wolf was one of these giants of music, and once he got to Chicago, he lived a fascinating life that’s captured well in this biography.
Indiana: She Got Up Off the Couch by Haven Kimmel
In Kimmel’s second memoir, she turns her eye towards her mother, a 260-pound, middle-aged coed who changes her life by “getting off the couch” and pursuing a future of her own, starting with a college degree. An inspiring true story.
Iowa: Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere by Lucas Mann
A year in the life of a minor league baseball team — the LumberKings of Clinton, Iowa — is a year in the life of an American city in the modern world. Mann takes us deep into Clinton’s history (a closed factory looms over the town), and the fans and players united by what may be the most American sport.
Kansas: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Perhaps Capote invented a genre with this true-crime classic. His story of the Clutter murders spins out from that first act of violence and becomes a portrayal of a community shaken by brutality, and the screwy psychological relationship between the two killers.
Kentucky: Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son by John Jeremiah Sullivan
When you think of Kentucky, you think of horse racing. Essential writer John Jeremiah Sullivan (go read Pulphead) was the son of a sportswriter, and in an effort to learn more about his father’s life and passions, he goes deep into the world of horses and horse racing. The results are epic and personal, brilliant and charming, and completely singular.
Louisiana: The Earl of Louisiana by A.J. Liebling
We’d read Liebling on anything, and his reporting on Earl Long, the younger brother of Lousiana legend Huey “Kingfish” Long, is a portrayal of political theater that no longer exists, and of a character slipping into something close to madness.
Maine: One Man’s Meat by E.B. White
Maine! It’s a very idiosyncratic place. If you are not born in Maine you are “from away,” and in these essays, the best writer “from away” still sums up the daily beauty, weirdness, and quirkiness of life in a state that’s mostly wilderness.
Maryland: The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates
We are all reading Coates’ smart words on the daily at The Atlantic, and marveling over his work in print, like his recent cover story on reparations, but do we know anything about his past? In The Beautiful Struggle, Coates writes a moving tale about growing up in West Baltimore, and his father’s work and sacrifices for the family.
Massachusetts: Hometown by Tracy Kidder
There’s an argument to be made that Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is the ultimate Massachusetts book, but I know you’ve read it, so can I recommend the brilliant works (all of them) of the bard of minutemen himself, Tracy Kidder, where Massachusetts always figures? In Hometown he spends a year in Northampton, following people from beat cops to Smith students, and you close the pages feeling like you know just a little bit more about human nature in modern times.
Michigan: The Other Side of the River by Alex Kotlowitz
Kotlowitz is just a great writer (There Are No Children Here is another must-read of his). In this work, he starts with a crime — the body of a black teenager is found washed up on the river — and shows us how two towns can be torn apart by economic and racial divides.
Minnesota: The Music of Failure by Bill Holm
Garrison Keillor who? In these essays by Bill Holm, we get a picture of Minnesota in all its vexing contradictions, from the glorious prairie to reading poetry in nursing homes. Holm’s point of view is straightforward and full of lyricism, a true reflection of his homeland.
Mississippi: Black Boy by Richard Wright
Richard Wright lived through a difficult childhood in Mississippi, one colored by racism and violence. He looks at his past with an unsparing eye, and as a result, we get a complicated and beautiful portrayal of what it was like for one young man to grow up in Mississippi.
Missouri: On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A’Lelia Bundle
The first self-made female millionaire in America, Walker overcame a tough past — the daughter of slaves, orphaned by six — and ended up becoming an entrepreneur, marketing hair care products to black women. She started this amazing journey when she was living in St. Louis, making hers a Missouri story.
Montana: Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean
A National Book Critics Circle winner, Maclean’s book is a study of the 1949 Mann Gulch tragedy, when men who worked as Smokejumpers fought a fire that raged on in the Montana wilderness. A book full of grief and fire.
Nebraska: The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout
Cather is the strongest writer to come out of Nebraska, and her letters shed light on the life that gave shape to such books as My Antonia. It shows how, though she tried to flee eastward, the West — and the inspiration that it gave — always had a hold on this bright woman, one that lasted throughout her life.
Nevada: About a Mountain by John D’Agata
Nevada is not just the adult playground of Las Vegas, and in this engrossing work, D’Agata nimbly weaves together the story of Yucca Mountain, where our country is trying to store our tons of nuclear waste, with the suicide of a Las Vegas teenager.
New Hampshire: Inside Peyton Place: The Life of Grace Metalious by Emily Toth
Grace Metalious scandalized her small New Hampshire town when she took all the local gossip and put it into a shocking, boundary-breaking book that turned into a gigantic success called Peyton Place. In Toth’s biography, we read the real stories behind the book that spurred Metalious on in her life.
New Jersey: The Pine Barrens by John McPhee
I’ll read anything McPhee writes about any place, and in this book, he makes New Jersey into poetry, by starting with the wildness of the Pine Barrens and moving onwards to the people and stories that have given birth to this location.
New Mexico: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
An award-winning classic (Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award), Rhodes’ look into the development of the atomic bomb explores, in particular, how scientists ended up creating a weapon. Its focus on Robert Oppenheimer, The Manhattan Project, and the work at Los Alamos is a staggering portrayal of man’s power and cruelty.
New York: Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
LeBlanc’s debut took ten years to write and report, and her look into the lives of two girls, two romances, and the ups and downs of living close to the bone takes you into a part of New York City that’s much ignored, moving up river to Troy, New York for something like salvation at the end of the day.
North Carolina: The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert
The last American man, Eustace Conway, lives in the Appalachian hills. He has rode a horse across America twice, killing squirrels for food. He is the most authentic man alive, and in Gilbert’s loving portrayal of his mountain man life, we see the complications and contradictions that arise from his choice to stay as close to the land as possible.
North Dakota: Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 100 Reviews by Marilyn Hagerty
Do you remember when Hagerty’s Olive Garden review went viral? Well, Anthony Bourdain loved it and signed her up for a book. A collection of her dining columns, the resulting work is a portrayal of North Dakota life and values through its food. It is basically anti-snark, and a valuable piece of Americana. Check out Bourdain’s foreword here.
Ohio: What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction by Toni Morrison
Lorain, Ohio’s finest daughter, Toni Morrison writes brilliantly about her life, including her childhood in the Midwest, in this rare collection of essays spanning family, writing, and politics.
Oklahoma: Tulsa by Larry Clark
Noted provocateur Larry Clark made a splash with this collection of photos that showed the druggy, hedonistic lives of Tulsa youth. There’s sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll in every shot, and it was a watershed moment, making poetry out of the nihilistic tragedy behind the documented pursuit of hedonism.
Oregon: Hole in the Sky by William Kittredge
In this memoir about growing up in Oregon, Kittredge takes us to the edge of American myth. He was raised by cowboys on a slab of land at the very edge of the country, and as he grew, his way of life fell out from underneath him.
Pennsylvania: The Philadelphia Negro by W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote this book in 1899, making it one of the earliest examples of sociology as a social science in America. Combining rigorous statistical research and a slew of interviews, it’s a fascinating look at what life was like for the African-American community in Philadelphia.
Rhode Island: The Prince of Providence by Mike Stanton
Rhode Island is very small, so it’s primed to be taken over by some larger-than-life political characters. Buddy Cianci, the former mayor of Providence, held the office twice, and he was forced to resign, both times, due to criminal activity, from assault to racketeering. His spaghetti sauce is sold locally. He is a character. Robert De Niro has been flirting with the idea of playing him in a movie.
South Carolina: Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, PhD
It’s a mystery embedded in quilts. Slaves used secret messages in handmade quilts, a language called “the Charleston code,” in order to figure out the Underground Railroad’s path. In this book, historians research the messages and the quilts to piece the whole story together.
South Dakota: On the Rez by Ian Frazier
Frazier embeds himself in the world of the South Dakota Sioux. A perceptive, captivating writer, Frazier is fascinating to follow as he goes to pow-wows, rodeos, and the local package stores, in a book that sheds light on a world most Americans are not often privy to these days.
Tennessee: Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock’N’Roll by Colin Escott with Martin Hawkins
Sun Records played an indelible role in the birth of a new American sound, and in this book, we delve into the world of this seminal studio, which brought us the sounds of performers like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and B.B. King.
Texas: Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria E. Anzaldúa
Texas forever? Nah. In this work of creative nonfiction, the Chicana writer and lesbian activist uses prose and poetry to explore the borders that make up our lives — the ones separating America and Mexico, mainstream culture and foreigners, and so on. The perspective she writes with is something fluid and radical, showing Texas life from a different side.
Utah: The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
A Pulitzer Prize-winning book about a man who was sentenced to death row in Utah, Mailer’s book is a thorough, sometimes exhausting look at Gary Gilmore’s life and crimes, and a fascinating account of Gilmore’s trial. But it’s more than just a true-crime book — it’s about coming to terms with death and the spirit, and that gives it power.
Vermont: An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage by Malcolm MacMillan
Vermont was where Phineas Gage took a tamping iron to his head, an accident that made him into a figure of neurological wonder and legend. This book looks into the life of Gage, and his terrifically long afterlife. Medical reports are included.
Virginia: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Does anyone do it as well as Annie Dillard? The way that she looks at the nature surrounding her in Virginia yields the sort of writing that makes you happy to be sharing the profound beauties of earth with her talent. It’s another son of Walden, but Dillard’s natural observations make for much better company.
Washington: Bretz’s Flood: The Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World’s Greatest Flood by John Soennichsen
A maverick scientist who had a theory that a great flood created a divide between Washington and Idaho, Bretz was laughed out of the academy with ideas that seemed way too biblical; but time, and this book, would prove Bretz’s theories correct.
West Virginia: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Walls grew up with nothing in West Virginia. She and her siblings were living under the thumb of her troubled parents, and this book goes into the resourcefulness and strength that Walls found in horrifying circumstances. Jennifer Lawrence keeps flirting with a film version of this story. Hope it happens soon.
Wisconsin: Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy
Old-timey photos from Jackson County, Wisconsin, coupled with semi-horrifying news reports from that same era, paint a dark portrayal of rural life in Wisconsin in the 19th century. This book, however, has remained as a cult object that has inspired a slew of imitators and tributes.
Wyoming: Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg
A memoir about a boy working for his father, who owns the largest dude ranch in Wyoming, this is a cowboy’s tale, and a coming-of-age story in the sure hands of Spragg. It’s a beautiful look at the harshness and grandeur that comes from growing up in Wyoming.
Washington, D.C.: All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, this feat of reporting by Woodward and Bernstein took down a presidency and gave us (and, of course, the porn industry) endless “deep throat” jokes. It’s also parodied quite nicely in the underrated Kirsten Dunst film Dick.