Why Books Are More Important Than Ever Right Now

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The author of Vacationland celebrates the power of place and the exploration of the United States of Books.

We float like nationless ghosts across the internet and sometimes lose sight of how much we are still shaped by the random fact of where we were born. Of the land and the living our families pulled from it (or the cities we fled to when our families grew too annoying). It’s not just our accent or which baseball team we root for or whether we drink Cheerwine or Moxie. It’s also our stories—our legends and songs and jokes and prejudices, and yes, our literature. When we get up in the morning and begin our routine, it’s easy to forget that the place we see every day isn’t the whole world. But it’s more important than ever to remember.

Some writers are particularly good at capturing place, and if that place is remote or peculiar enough, they become captured themselves, a little: E.B. White will always be linked to Maine, Joan Didion to L.A., Armistead Maupin to San Francisco. From reading their work, you can learn a lot about those places, but the association isn’t totally fair. You would never confuse Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn with Jacqueline Woodson’s. William Faulkner’s Gothic crumble of Jefferson, Mississippi, is light years away from the human urgency of Jesmyn Ward’s Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. (Also important: Neither location actually exists; they are imagined worlds you can visit only through the truth-telling lies of fiction.)

I went on a literary pilgrimage once. A friend wanted to visit Faulkner’s grave, so I agreed to drive from New York in my white Buick LeSabre and pick him up in Atlanta. From there we’d head to Oxford, Mississippi.

I’d never driven into the Deep South before. We rolled down the windows and took in the sights. When we reached Alabama, we pulled over at a barbecue pit in a gentleman’s backyard. It was just a big outdoor chimney, with fire and pork inside. The pork butts rested on a ledge just above the fire. My companion didn’t approve of the cook’s technique. Simply setting pork butts ablaze is not actually barbecue, in his view. But then he sampled the end product. “It tastes good,” he admitted. “Maybe that’s just how they do things here.” We licked our fingers clean and got back in the car.

We crossed into Mississippi. Then there were hours of gazing out at the lush beauty of the countryside, the sky darkening, the light fading on the kudzu at a slightly different angle than I was used to, reminding me that, yes, you are on a different part of the earth.

We got to the cemetery late on a Sunday afternoon and spent 20 minutes looking around hopelessly for our hero’s grave. It is not in my New England nature to ask for help, nor, for that matter, even to speak to another person if I can avoid it. But help was offered by a teenager doing lazy skateboard tricks in the middle of the road, who gave us directions to the great man’s final resting place. The kid was wearing slippers that looked like big, fuzzy monster feet.

It was embarrassing we hadn’t found the spot ourselves because it was the one with all the empty whiskey bottles left in tribute. My friend opened the fifth he’d been saving, and we each took a swig. I couldn’t stop thinking about that teenager. What was his life like, growing up here and now, in a blue college town surrounded by deep red, living on the edge of a graveyard? How did he pull off those skateboard tricks with those crazy slippers on? No Buick LeSabre could deliver me to that boy’s life. That’s why we have books.