Thursday, January 14, 2010
How the States Got Their Shapes is one of the rare books that does exactly what it promises: Stein explains all of the geographic borders of all fifty US states, each in its own chapter. There's also some introductory material, including a "Don't Skip This" prefatory chapter that covers multi-state boundaries and major land acquisitions. Inevitably, Stein covers the same material twice -- each internal border obviously touches two states -- but he never repeats himself.
This is a deeply, deeply geeky book, and I mean that in the best possible sense; it's a book about contingency, details, compromises, and accidents, and it cares deeply about the little facts that led to the lines on our maps. A reader would have to be at least a little geeky to be interested in How the States Got Their Shapes, so the fact that it was a bestseller gives me hope that there are still things that unite Americans -- even if those things are a fascination with the lines that divide us.
I couldn't read this book straight through -- it's not a topic most of us could possibly be deeply interested in -- but it was very pleasant to read a state or two at bedtime for the past couple of months. If you think you might have an interest in the borders of US states, this is likely to be the best, and only, book of the subject for many years to come.