The best books on boundaries

Mark Stein Author Of How the States Got Their Shapes
By Mark Stein

Who am I?

As a teenager, I wondered why my state, Maryland, didn’t include Delaware. Later, at the University of Wisconsin, I wondered why its northeastern peninsula was part of Michigan. Then I started wondering about boring borders -- why Colorado’s and Wyoming’s lines are where they are and not a mile or so so this way or that? I ended up writing How the States Got Their Shapes, followed by The People Behind the Borderlines.


I wrote...

How the States Got Their Shapes

By Mark Stein,

Book cover of How the States Got Their Shapes

What is my book about?

Why does Oklahoma have that panhandle? Did someone make a mistake? We are so familiar with the map of the United States that our state borders seem as much a part of nature as mountains and rivers. Even the oddities—the entire state of Maryland(!)—have become so engrained that our map might as well be a giant jigsaw puzzle designed by Divine Providence. But that's where the real mystery begins. Every edge of the familiar wooden jigsaw pieces of our childhood represents a revealing moment of history and of, well, humans drawing lines in the sand.

How the States Got Their Shapes is the first book to tackle why our state lines are where they are. Here are the stories behind the stories, right down to the tiny northward jog at the eastern end of Tennessee and the teeny-tiny (and little known) parts of Delaware that are not attached to Delaware but to New Jersey.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA

By Doug Mack,

Book cover of The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA

Why this book?

Our borderlines tell us a lot about who we are -- and who we are not. Many Americans know, for instance, that Puerto Rico is a U.S. Territory and likely know why there is reluctance in Puerto Rico and Congress for it to become a state: language y cultura. These two factors may play some part in why the English-speaking Territories of Guam, Samoa, the Northern Marianas and the Virgin Islands are not states, but why are they U.S. possessions? Doug Mack’s book digs into these borders that are -- and simultaneously are not -- the United States.

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA

By Doug Mack,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Not-Quite States of America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Everyone knows that America is 50 states and... some other stuff. The U.S. territories-American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands-and their 4 million people are little known and often forgotten, so Doug Mack set out on a 30,000-mile journey to learn about them. How did they come to be part of the United States? What are they like today? And why aren't they states? Deeply researched and richly reported, The Not-Quite States of America is an entertaining and unprecedented account of the territories' crucial yet overlooked place in the American story.


American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

By Colin Woodard,

Book cover of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

Why this book?

Some of our state lines were cultural borders. The Colony of Massachusetts was founded by and for Puritans; Maryland was created for Catholics; Pennsylvania for Quakers. That process continued after the Revolution, regardless of state (or later-to-become state) lines. Colin Woodard’s book explores the founding of such cultural regions and reveals how those not-on-the-map lines influence our differing views to this day.

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

By Colin Woodard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked American Nations as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

* A New Republic Best Book of the Year * The Globalist Top Books of the Year * Winner of the Maine Literary Award for Non-fiction *

Particularly relevant in understanding who voted for who in this presidential election year, this is an endlessly fascinating look at American regionalism and the eleven "nations" that continue to shape North America

According to award-winning journalist and historian Colin Woodard, North America is made up of eleven distinct nations, each with its own unique historical roots. In American Nations he takes readers on a journey through the history of our fractured continent, offering…


Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

By William Cronon,

Book cover of Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

Why this book?

This book really jogged the way I look at maps and contributed to my wondering about boundaries. Using Chicago as his base point, William Cronon breaks apart one of the fundamental geographic borders in our minds: urban versus rural. He shows just how interconnected we are -- including those “parasites” we call middlemen, by explaining (and making interesting!) the Chicago Commodities Exchange.

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

By William Cronon,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Nature's Metropolis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this groundbreaking work, William Cronon gives us an environmental perspective on the history of nineteenth-century America. By exploring the ecological and economic changes that made Chicago America's most dynamic city and the Great West its hinterland, Mr. Cronon opens a new window onto our national past. This is the story of city and country becoming ever more tightly bound in a system so powerful that it reshaped the American landscape and transformed American culture. The world that emerged is our own.

Winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize


Cessions of Land by Indian Tribes to the United States

By Charles C. Royce,

Book cover of Cessions of Land by Indian Tribes to the United States

Why this book?

This book is not so much one to read, being more of an atlas. And atlases are expensive. Except this one. It’s free! Published by the U.S. Government in 1899 but still available online, it’s an extraordinary collection of Native American borders that got changed...and changed...and changed. It is history in the raw, from back in that time. More importantly, it is history we all need to know, if we are to know who we are as a nation today.

Cessions of Land by Indian Tribes to the United States

By Charles C. Royce,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cessions of Land by Indian Tribes to the United States as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

HardPress Classic Books Series


Underland: A Deep Time Journey

By Robert MacFarlane,

Book cover of Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Why this book?

Humans create all kinds of borders. They’re invaluable in helping us make sense of the world. Robert Macfarlane’s book brilliantly explores what might be called “dark borders.” From below ground borders via, for instance, caves into which he takes his readers (claustrophobic readers beware!) to the discovery of dark matter in the universe and how physicists “map” what can’t be seen. But the best part is his revealing the significance of these dark realms to the human experience...and, in the case of “dark matter,” to existence itself.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey

By Robert MacFarlane,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Underland as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Underland, Robert Macfarlane delivers an epic exploration of the Earth's underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself. Traveling through the dizzying expanse of geologic time-from prehistoric art in Norwegian sea caves, to the blue depths of the Greenland ice cap, to a deep-sunk "hiding place" where nuclear waste will be stored for 100,000 years to come-Underland takes us on an extraordinary journey into our relationship with darkness, burial, and what lies beneath the surface of both place and mind.

Global in its geography and written with great lyricism, Underland speaks powerfully to our present…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in explorers, Illinois, and the underworld?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about explorers, Illinois, and the underworld.

Explorers Explore 71 books about explorers
Illinois Explore 68 books about Illinois
The Underworld Explore 7 books about the underworld

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Desert Solitaire, Fast Food Nation, and Cadillac Desert if you like this list.