If you're thinking about taking a road trip in America this summer, you might want to consider leaving the GPS and the Rand McNally at home and, in their place, packing a bewitching new book called The Real State of America Atlas: Mapping the Myths and Truths of the United States by Cynthia Enloe and Joni Seager. While it won't help you negotiate those ring-shaped parking lots around Atlanta or Washington, D.C., this idiosyncratic travel guide will reveal how life is lived today in any state you happen to pass through. By the time you finish digesting the book's short essays, colorful graphics, charts and maps, you'll understand that the 50 states were not created equal. Geography does matter. Enormously. As its subtitle suggests, the book's authors set out to strip away the popular myths that distort many Americans' view of their homeland and its place in the world. The authors accomplished this by analyzing a small mountain of data, including U.S. Census reports, the findings of prisoner rights research groups, the United Nations, the Pew Foundation and organizations monitoring college athletics, plus Bureau of Labor statistics and corporate annual reports. They then synthesized this data to produce a series of vivid snapshots about America's distribution of wealth, religious attitudes, employment, home ownership and homelessness, sickness and health, prisons, immigration, gun ownership, environmental degradation, corporate power, military spending, and even the worldwide popularity of the Barbie doll. (She's huge in Italy and the United Kingdom.) The findings are by turns surprising, predictable, frightening, encouraging, amusing, and maddening. For instance, we learn again and again that Texas is a state of extremes: it has executed the most people since 1976 (463); it has the highest percentage of hunters (Pennsylvania ranks second); it has sacrificed more of its citizens to the Iraq War than any other state except California (414 to 468, with Pennsylvania a distant third at 195); it has the highest percentage of citizens without health insurance (26 percent); and it has a gross domestic product equal to Russia's. While such facts are interesting in themselves and valuable for the global perspective they provide, they are not this book's greatest strength. Where The Real State of America Atlas truly shines is in its demolition of the notion – the enduring fantasy – that America is a land of equal opportunity, a place where boundless bounty awaits anyone who is willing to work hard and play by the rules. With a relentless parade of statistics, the authors make a compelling case that the playing field is far from level and the American Dream is, increasingly, becoming the destiny of the privileged few as it slips beyond the reach of most members of the middle class. Forget about the poor. Consider these numbers: there are 413 billionaires in America with a combined net worth of $1.4 trillion; the richest 1 percent of Americans own 35 percent of the total wealth; the poorest 40 percent own 0.2 percent of the wealth; 19 percent of American households have zero or negative wealth. "Almost a fifth of American households have an annual income of less than $20,000," the authors write, "and 15 percent of Americans live at or below official poverty levels... The wealth gap in the U.S. is considerable and growing fast." Yet even as the federal budget went from a $236 billion surplus to a $1.5 trillion deficit in the past decade, many lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, insist that continued tax breaks for the rich are vital for the country. The super-rich aren't the only culprits in our looming national debt crisis. More than half of the foreign companies and 42 percent of U.S. companies doing business on American soil paid zero federal income tax for two or more years between 1998 and 2005. In 2009, General Electric, Bank of America, and CitiGroup paid exactly nothing. Only in America. Sometimes the book's statistics merely buttress the obvious – Americans are religious, they own a lot of guns, they love sports and cars, they're increasingly conservative and insanely overweight, they're not much interested in what's happening beyond their national borders, and, for a people descended largely from immigrants, they're oddly suspicious and resentful of recent immigrants. That said, the authors do sometimes counter well-known facts with counter-intuitive anecdotes, such as the revelation that for all the God-fearing that goes on in America, the number of atheists and agnostics has doubled, from 8 to 16 percent of the population, in the past 30 years. It's worth pausing here to consider the authors' bona fides. Cynthia Enloe is a political science professor at Clark University and the author of 11 books, including The Curious Feminist and Nimo's War, Emma's War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War. Joni Seager, a geographer and global policy expert, teaches at Bentley University in Boston and has written many books, including four editions of Atlas of Women in the World. Given such credentials, it's perhaps not surprising that the authors occasionally leave themselves open to the criticism that they're promoting a leftist, feminist agenda. Worse, they sometimes slip into muzzy writing, such as: "Despite a long history of peace activism, many Americans have absorbed militaristic ideas: for instance, believing that soldiering is the highest form of patriotism, that the world is full of enemies, that protecting against terrorists trumps civil rights, that men are the natural protectors of women, that jet bombers overhead make sporting events exciting, and that Commander-in-Chief is the President's most important job." No doubt many Americans do believe these things. Just as surely, many don't believe them. But how many? And what do these competing beliefs tell us about the nation at large? Unfortunately, the authors don't say. But such missteps don't diminish this book's real and valuable achievements. Enloe and Seager have produced a timely reminder that America is a place where the deck is stacked, where the rich keep getting richer, and where nothing is going to change until the members of the great, duped, sinking middle class wake up and realize they've been sold a bill of goods.
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When I think about the books I’ve read in 2016, the greatest have left me cut open, because I believe words are swords. Even hello and goodbye. Especially goodbye. And even curse words. But for my purposes, they’re swords against injustice, a voice to the marginalized -- spoken or on a page, a wall, a tattoo. I fear the silences. The silence of those who feel unthreatened. That is, the silence of well meaning, “nice people” who want to get along, and who believe a disagreement or protest only means no peace, not a path to get there. I fear the silence of other Christians that I now hear so loud. Those who only pray for the police and not the protestors. We need God all around. When I was 19 years old, a boy in my college who was offended by the words I used after his assault said, “If you say anything, I will destroy you. I have more friends than you do.” He was right about having more friends. In other words, he had more power and influence in that space, the same way politics and money have power over us. But at almost 40 years old now, I’ve lived long enough to have been destroyed before, and I can testify that sitting in silence is worse. In shame is worse. Had I known then what I know now, I would have chosen differently. I would have chosen for myself when and when not to be silent. Back then, his threat chose for me. But today, I’m different. I believe that love casts out all fear. Including mine. And I believe the world is rigged in the favor of love. It is what will ultimately unify us. And I believe in hope. Active hope. And active love. Not just a feeling, but the kind of love that compels us to do something selflessly for the people we say we love and support. It should compel us to serve others, and if necessary, to stand in the gap for those who can’t. It’s an action word and still a sword. Preferring love doesn’t mean to ignore other emotions, like this anger I know I carry. And if I’m honest, I try to carry it the same way I do my lust. I have become a container of longing. It’s redirection. It’s discipline. I know we don’t all have it. Not yet. I’ve read the biographies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I admire the way he carried his passions, but I’ve read about his failings, too. No one’s perfect. I give these admissions of love and lust and anger to you because we are alive and there is so much to feel right now and to acknowledge and understand about others -- there are no “others" -- but not all of our emotion is helpful to what must be done in times of “no peace.” To stand in the gap for others, to get us along the road to move forward and help in some way. Whether we feel personally threatened or not, we’ll have to recognize what our cleanest sustainable fuel is -- the cleanest emotion. I think it’s love. For all other emotions, we’ll have to make time and a safe place to be reckless. Books help to inform how I’ll love; where the need is outside of my own personal experience and circle of friends. So I’ve read so many good books in 2016, many are from marginalized groups, but not solely, and include women and people of color, and from the LGBTQIA communities, and from different religious and spiritual groups. But what I want to share with you are the books I'll be bringing with me into the unknown of 2017. For spiritual fuel...I’ll be bringing Timothy Keller’s book Prayer in order to pray for this world around me, including our president, the House and Senate and our judiciary, and for every group in our country that is living under extraordinary threat based on ethnicity or religion or sexual preference. For Native Americans. For women. And I pray for those of us who are able to do something, even if it’s one thing or a handful of things, or many things. We can make a difference. I’ll also be bringing Beth Moore’s book So Long Insecurity to remind myself of the courage we’ll all need to carry on. Beth Moore, a pastor, tirelessly and publicly stands up for women. And I’ll bring Judah Smith’s book Life Is______. And last but not least, for spiritual fuel, I’ll be reading The Bible. Specifically, the four Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John -- books by men about a man who respected women from all walks of life, no matter the mistakes she’d made in her life, years ago or just moments ago. And in this way, I'll remind myself of the kind of men who possess the love I'd put my faith and hope in, even if they don’t call themselves feminists. For other strengths, I’ll be rereading Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and any of her essays, including one of my favorites called "Acts of Faith." Ever since I read that essay for the first time last year, and learned of the existence of Jesuit Priests, I’ve considered converting to Catholicism just for them...and for the Pope. I enjoyed his recent book, The Name of God Is Mercy. I’ll also be reading essays by Rebecca Solnit and finishing her book The Faraway Nearby because it says so much about the nature of us, of women, and our “place” in society and what we hope for. I’ll never forget the term she coined, “Mansplaining.” It sums up my professional life in the last year or so. Fourteen years as a lawyer in my field, and men will still feel compelled to explain the ropes of law practice to me. I let them. It allows me to rest. I’ll be carrying We Love You Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge and Surveillance by Ashaki Jackson for the times I need to be reminded why I must keep walking. Why we all do. To laugh, I will take Ayisha Malik’s new book, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. When I heard her read from it in London this summer, I was crying-laughing. The same as when I was flipping through the pages of Mary Laura Philpott’s book, Penguins with People Problems. I’ve read her book again and again like it was a squishy stress-relief toy. And, of course I’m taking the book Go the F**k to Sleep, which is essential reading for new parents who have protected their senses of humor from sleep deprivation. And I’ll take the book All My Friends Are Dead just to smile, and finally, I’ll finish Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley because it’s worth it. We need laughter. Even if it feels wrong to laugh right now. I want to bring books about girls and women into 2017 that may not fall into the designation of “women of color” -- some of the books I’ve already mentioned do not. I want to remember that we’re all in this together and no one gets out of this life as an adult unwounded. Shared pain (and shared laughter) may be the simplest unifiers. So I will read Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne, The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak, and Mothers and Other Strangers by Gina Sorell. Gina’s book has this opening line: “My father proposed to my mother at gunpoint when she was nineteen, and knowing that she was already pregnant with a dead man’s child, she accepted.” Because I am a sister to four brothers and have always been told growing up that I was a Tomboy -- but whatever! -- I will call these books my masculine selections that I’m carrying into 2017: Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland, Matthew Nienow’s chapbook House of Water, and Shooting Elvis by Robert Eversz. Coincidentally, Shooting Elvis has a young female protagonist from the 1980s to whom I can relate. I still imagine myself wearing neon with crimped bangs. And finally, I’m carrying an early review copy of The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi. It’s gorgeous. In it, Choi writes about painful loss -- he’s lost a child, he's lost his native country, and now, the people he loves are slipping away. The poems in his book have caused me to ponder the state of life, this world we now live in, and to draw enormous conclusions about us: That maybe by 40 years old, every person alive has lost something so germane that it changes her -- something about her country, her personal life. But what I’ve discovered is more true is that the love we give is timeless. For everything else, we’ll have to decide how we’ll move forward with what remains. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. 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Xzibit would have a field day with this one: an underground bookshop that sells underground books and zines.
Few things are more individual than your feelings about e-books. Dustin Illingworth can’t stand them -- as he puts it, “books are meant to be handled and smelled.” At Full-Stop, he writes about what this preference reveals about himself. You could also read our tribute to e-book pioneer Michael Hart.