Summer Guide: Don't Shrug This Atlas--The Real State of America Atlas, That Is

Yes, charts can be beach reading. Plus, summer books picks.

Among the casualties of iPhone apps, Google Maps, and automobile GPS systems is that most useful of summer books—the atlas. But these oversize artifacts haven’t died just yet; they’re reinventing themselves. Instead of merely graphing Point A and Point B, or corn production in the Midwest, Penguin’s atlas series, which includes The State of the World and Women of the World, has given us a picture of where we are as a society through revelatory statistics presented in “charticle” format, with a political slant. The latest in that book series, The Real State of America Atlas, will arrive in July, delivering a riveting portrait of an America that doesn’t always live up to its ideals.

Real State maps the USA’s patterns in religion, race, politics, the minimum wage, the dwindling lands of Native Americans, the proliferation of guns, the most environmentally dangerous areas, the number of missing nuclear weapons, among many other hot-button subjects—daring us to confront the facts. Cynthia Enloe and Joni Seager, the political scientist and geographer who put the book together, spoke to the Voice about their vision of an utterly fascinating (and surprisingly slim!) atlas—but one that’s comfortable with bearing the weight of America on its back.

Can statistics change anything in a world where certain segments of the population believe that facts don’t matter? Seager: Yes. At the end of the day, there really are people in sub-standard housing and people who are hungry, and we can get statistics on [those realities]. I could go on about the mutability of language and truth, but there really are knowable facts, and we’re trying to reveal some of them with this atlas.

What statistics about the U.S. surprised you? Seager: Poverty statistics. We tried to make visible the American overseas empire—Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, but also smaller places: Baker Island, the Palmyra Atoll. The social statistics for these islands are horrifying. Mississippi has the highest poverty rate (20 percent), but American Samoa has 60 percent. And 99 percent of Americans couldn’t find American Samoa on the map.

Enloe: I was stunned at how America dominates arms manufacturing and sales. Also that U.S. governments, Republican and Democrat, for many years thought that giving vast amounts of military aid to the Egyptian government was good for American security. But I don’t think that until the “Arab Spring” we thought about how disproportionate military aid to Egypt was. Egypt just jumps out at you.

After reading all these statistics, I felt a little shell-shocked. What did you want readers to come away with? Enloe: We wanted people to talk to each other. This is an era when Americans are becoming more polarized ideologically. We wanted people to look at the reliable factual portrait of Americans and how we live in this country, then look at their own America and say, “Well, this is what we’ll base our voting on.” We really do hope that every spread will spark refreshed conversations—conversations based on reality.

Seager: We see so many contradictions in American life and pop culture. For example, Americans by and large think of themselves as being caring, generous, and helping others less fortunate, giving money for causes, the Peace Corps, etc. That’s one true portrait, but then if you start to look—not even all that deeply—you realize the terrible inequities. And how do you reconcile that feeling of caring and concern with those inequalities? It’s hard to hold those contradictions in your head. So maybe you can hold them in the book.

‘The Real State of America Atlas,’ by Cynthia Enloe and Joni Seager, Penguin/Myriad Editions, 128 pages, $22. JULY

Summer Books Picks

The Optimism Bias
By Tali Sharot
“Because we use the same neural system to recall the past as we do to imagine the future,” writes neuroscientist Sharot, “recollection also ends up being a reconstructive process rather than a videolike replay of past events.” Apparently, according to her insightful, Oliver Sacks–y first book, we embellish and alter the past for the same reasons we look forward to the future. Who could bear either without “optimistic tendencies”? “Optimism may be so essential to our survival that it is hardwired” into our brain. Perhaps the only reason we can go on living, she suggests, is that we always think things will get better, whether or not they do. Pantheon, 272 pp., $24.95 JUNE

The Secret History of Costaguana
By Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Western Lit is too big to ignore, but its history is too racist to bear. What’s a flabbergasted subaltern to do? Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s answer is to plunder Joseph Conrad—continuously. His first novel, 2004’s The Informers, owed a certain debt to The Secret Agent and brought Vásquez international attention. Too smart to leave a successful idea alone, in The Secret History of Costaguana, Vásquez imagines that Conrad appropriated the personal history of a Columbian man named José Altamirano to construct his novel of invented Latin American history, Nostromo. Maybe next he will make the Amazon stand in for the Congo in Corazón of Darkness.Riverhead, 304 pp., $26.95 June

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