Mapping the American Experience, Book by Book

A collaboration between the award-winning author Susan Straight and Esri results in an interactive map of 737 regionally inspired American novels

Susan Straight

UCR distinguished professor of creative writing and award-winning author Susan Straight has created an interactive map of 737 regionally inspired American novels.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — In the wake of last year’s presidential election, author Susan Straight found herself profoundly disheartened by the event’s divisiveness. But rather than grieve over seeing her country diminished to “primary colors and simplistic nicknames,” Straight channeled her frustration into righting what she perceived as some of the election’s wrongs.

She embarked upon an ambitious mission, one that even avid readers would consider daunting: mapping the American experience in 737 novels, each selected based on its representation of a particular American geographic region.

“All throughout the election, I felt very sad that we were being reduced to terms like red state or blue state, coastal elite or flyover country — any of those things,” said Straight, a University of California, Riverside distinguished professor of creative writing and award-winning novelist. “I made the map to get us to stop thinking of America as a place that’s so easily separated by labels.”

Collaborating with Redlands-based company Esri, the world’s leading provider of geographic information systems technology, Straight spent three post-inauguration months obsessively selecting and researching the hundreds of novels, novellas, and short story collections that would come to comprise her finished map.

In an introductory essay published by the British literary journal Granta, she described the process of compiling the interactive project’s list of books.

“I wrote on bookmarks in the library, pulled out expired auto registrations from the glove compartment to write titles, scribbled on the magazine subscription inserts in the medical clinic waiting room, wrote on my porch at twilight on tiny La Quinta notepads collected while I drove across the country last fall,” Straight wrote. “I wrote until near dawn, wanting a map of the literary nation, a beautiful evocation of how we are truly a nation of village and city and prairie and brownstone, of Rockies and bayous and mesas. Novels give to every reader someone else’s home. Can we not see this – we of wonder and grievance?”

A lifelong reader, Straight described her taste in books as “indiscriminate.” She said creating the map allowed her to revisit the stories — and settings — that strongly impacted her as a child growing up in Riverside, where she continues to live within clear view of the hospital in which she was born. She touched down in Wisconsin by way of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series, looked out over New York from a fire escape in Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” and even made her way to coastal Maine via Stephen King’s horror debut, “Carrie.”

Straight chose one work for each author included, though some of the books are not necessarily their authors’ most well-known. For example, instead of more popular Don DeLillo titles such as “White Noise” or “Underworld,” Straight opted to feature his 1972 sophomore novel, “End Zone,” about a football team in West Texas, because of the book’s emphasis on place.

Along with the locations of each book — many of which were geocoded by Esri to reflect the exact street or even building where a story took place — the map also features photos of most of the books’ first-edition covers.

“The map adds in more detail the further you zoom in,” said Christian Harder, an Esri information designer and writer who worked with Straight to develop the map. “As you pan around the country, the list of books changes automatically to show only books from the region where you’re currently looking. The whole project makes a very strong case for literacy and novel-reading.”

The map’s easy-to-use design also makes a case for its functionality as an educational device, said Allen Carroll, head of Esri’s Story Maps team, which produces and maintains applications that allow users to create custom web-based narratives — like Straight’s — that combine interactive maps with multimedia content.

“Increasingly, we are seeing Story Maps used in the context of classrooms and education,” said Carroll, the former chief cartographer and executive vice president of National Geographic Maps. “Susan’s map is really tailor-made for that purpose — it’s a unique way to celebrate the richness of American literature.”

Straight said the nonprofit organization California Humanities has featured the map as a suggested teaching tool for California schools, and that the map is being used in classrooms in Brazil and Turkey.

“I’ve already tracked down several of the novels from her list and found them to be definitely worthy,” Harder said. “The inside joke is that we’re causing a groundswell of 1-cent used book sales on Amazon.”

In August, Straight set off with her dog on a drive through 17 of the northern and western states on the map, bringing along some of the regional novels mentioned and writing about the towns and landscapes as they look now. On Oct. 1, she will begin a drive through the southern and eastern states. Her next project will feature those places.

Straight’s novels include “Aquaboogie” (1990), “I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots” (1992), “Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights” (1994), “The Gettin Place” (1996), “Highwire Moon” (2001), “A Million Nightingales” (2006), “Take One Candle Light A Room” (2010), and “Between Heaven and Here” (2012). Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, and The Believer, among other outlets.

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