The best books to understand the America between New Jersey and Oakland

Peter Laufer Author Of Up Against the Wall: The Case for Opening the Mexican-American Border
By Peter Laufer

The Books I Picked & Why

On the Road

By Jack Kerouac

Book cover of On the Road

Why this book?

On the Road is Jack Kerouac's rhapsody to the same types of freedom longed for/found by the characters that populate the film "Zoomland." His frantic writing and adventures always make me want to get back in my old VW camper and head – most anywhere.

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Travels with Charley in Search of America

By John Steinbeck

Book cover of Travels with Charley in Search of America

Why this book?

Looking through Travels with Charlie as I was putting together this list reminded me that John Steinbeck named his camper Rocinate, which is particularly germane for me as I write this because I (finally!) am almost finished reading Don Quixote. Steinbeck describes a cure for what might be ailing me, a cure I feel whenever I am behind the wheel: "The road away from Here." I particularly appreciate the uppercase "H".

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Blue Highways: A Journey into America

By William Least Heat-Moon

Book cover of Blue Highways: A Journey into America

Why this book?

No list like this is complete without William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways. Mid COVID-19 pandemic I contacted Heat-Moon and asked him what he thought of the virtual zoomesque trips stranded travelers were considering as substitutes for the real road. "Peter," he wrote, "a genuine journey outweighs a virtual journey by a factor I can't even calculate." His intimate and classic trip to America and Americans proves the point.

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Division Street: America

By Studs Terkel

Book cover of Division Street: America

Why this book?

The oral historian and radioman Studs Turkel takes us around American without leaving his Chicago via Division Street America. Sparsely contextualized by his interstitial commentary, Turkel exercises his embracing interviewing skills to bring poignant stories of the non-celebrity class into sharp, relevant focus. This same type of unornamented approach earned a Nobel Prize in literature for Belarussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich and her Chernobyl.

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Democracy in America

By Alexis de Tocqueville

Book cover of Democracy in America

Why this book?

And no such list is complete without Alexis de Tocqueville's classic from the 19th century, Democracy in America. Weighing in just two pages short of Don Quixote's 937 (paperback both, the ECCO Grossman Quixote translation and the Penguin Gerald Bevan de Tocqueville edition), Tocqueville ponders a question most of us contemplate and plenty of us act on: "Why Americans are so restless in the midst of their prosperity..."

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