EXULT, each patriot heart!—this night is shewn
A piece, which we may fairly call our own.
Fun fact for you this Independence Day: the first play written and performed in America was a comedy called “The Contrast” by Royall Tyler in 1787. The epigraph up there is from the play’s prologue; if you really want to read the whole thing, you can do it online. I learned this fun fact in college while engaged in one of my favorite pastimes, traveling off-syllabus through my Norton Anthology of American Literature. If any current students have stumbled here today, I highly recommend you give this a try. I remember at least as much of what I read on my own back then as I do about my assigned reading.Aside from this very specific, mostly useless fact, my Norton anthology also taught me a bit about what the United States was like in its earliest days.
For one thing, people used to refer to it in the plural, as in, “What are the United States like?” It took a civil war to really cement the idea that the jumbled collection was a coherent entity unto itself. For another, we citizens used to enjoy stereotyping each other based on our state of origin. I know that today we still have Southern accents and Midwestern generosity, but back in our civic infancy, we saw other, odder differences among ourselves. Virginians? Strikingly tall. Who knew?
Was something lost as the various squares in the American quilt became more tightly bound and more similar to each other? I suppose I’m thinking about this because I’m about to embark on a trip to Europe, where I haven’t been for years. One thing I loved on previous visits was how you can pass through so many so very different places in such a short time. In just a few hours of driving (or better yet, riding a train) you can cross multiple borders, hear multiple languages, and sample multiple cuisines. You might even find an entire country inside the one you’re visiting. “Get your passport out again–we’re approaching San Marino. Whoops, there it goes!”
The United States was once more like this than it is now, with all our nationwide chains and universally available broadcasting. There are definite advantages of convenience that we enjoy because of the change, but I rather miss the older, weirder America that’s largely vanished from our maps and history books. There are signs, though, that many of us are recognizing the pleasures of heterogeneity and trying to bring it back into our daily lives.
Independent bookstores are at the vanguard of this movement, naturally. We’re all about cultivating a unique atmosphere and celebrating the things that are special about our hometowns. And about yours, wherever it may be. The books I’ve liked best this year include one that comes from right nearby in Portland (Brian Doyle’s The Plover) and others that come from much more distant regions of our continent (Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda from Canada and Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd from Mexico). Pretty good geographical diversity there, and we at Island Books are no slouches where other kinds of diversity are concerned. We were quite proud to be praised on Twitter a few weeks ago by the folks behind the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag.
I have a vacation to prepare for, so I won’t spend more time exploring this subject (or bragging about how cool we indies are). Instead I’ll get back to figuring out what I’m going to take with me to read on the beach. I have some ideas already, of course, but more are always welcome. That’s what the comment box is for, you know.
James Crossley is a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island. He won’t be visiting San Marino this summer, but if you give him your address, he may send you a postcard from wherever he does end up.