I’ll start this review by admitting that I’m not the easiest guy in the world to shop for, and I really do feel bad for all of the people in my life who have to buy me gifts whenever my birthday or Christmas rolls around. The problem, if you can call it that, is that I’m just not into things. I am, however, a book lover, but this also raises a number of issues in the gift-giving arena–the biggest of which is that nobody (including myself half the time) knows which books I own or have read, and so nobody knows which books to give me. And, yes, there are always gift cards to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, but these gifts, heartfelt and sincere though they may be, smack slightly of defeat. They say, “I wanted to get you something, but I didn’t know what, so I’ll let you figure it out for yourself.”
I say all of this because I’m sure I’m not the only person out there who’s hard to buy for. And I further suspect that all of these people who are, like me, hard to buy for have people who love them and who want to buy them something out of the ordinary whenever gift-giving season rolls around. But they (the people who love the people who are hard to buy for) can never find the right gift and will–at the last moment, when all hope is lost–always settle for giving yet another gift card each holiday season even though they’d much prefer to buy a gift from the heart that say, “Hey! I care about you, and I know you well enough to get you this wonderful gift!” To put it bluntly, I’m saying all of this because I know how hard it is to shop for book lovers. But no more–for A Journey Through Literary America by Thomas R. Hummel and Tamra L. Dempsey is, I daresay, the perfect gift for book lovers.
First, the book is, objectively speaking, aesthetically beautiful. Illustrated with page after glossy page of vibrant photographs, it explores the settings that inspired many of America’s most loved authors–from Washington Irving’s Castkills to Robinson Jeffers’ Big Sur and back to Toni Morrison’s Lorain, Ohio (and many, many other places in between). Yet the book is more than just a collection of pretty (or, more accurately, stunning) pictures. And it’s even more than just an examination of the specific places that had a profound effect on the literary output of certain authors. Rather, it’s a meditation on relationship between place and author, or, even more broadly, upon place and self, place and identity. This is no small feat, for it takes the authors we admire in the abstract and places them squarely in the real world. Seeing their homes, seeing their towns, seeing the streets they walked and the rolling vistas that inspired them makes the 26 authors examined in A Journey all the more real to me, all the more human.
Needless to say, this volume is both a treat and treasure. Informative as it is beautiful, it will make a wonderful addition to any library. And, if you’re looking for the perfect gift for the book lover in your life, look no further than A Journey Through Literary America.
Marc Schuster is the author of The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl and the Associate Fiction Editor of Philadelphia Stories.