Traveling and American history are two of my biggest passions. So visiting locations that are important in history pretty much sums up glee for me. And William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well among other books, pulls that all together in his book, American Places.
Not a new book, but new to me, this book’s subtitle encapsulates its interior: “A Writer’s Pilgrimage to Sixteen of This Country’s Most Visited and Cherished Sites”. Zinsser visits places such as Mount Rushmore, Disneyland, Kitty Hawk, and The Alamo. He stops in almost every corner of the contiguous 48 states, and for spot number sixteen, which showed up in one of the later editions, he went to the cemetery at Omaha Beach, technically a portion of the United States gifted to us by France. I may have only been to three of the places he writes about, but William Zinsser made me feel like I was actually there.
After a brief introduction, American Places doesn’t waste any time diving into the sixteen included destinations, with the rest of the book devoted to them. This is not another touristy book about touristy places. Sure, many of the included places are visited by sometimes millions of visitors a year. And all of them have an important place in our nation’s history. But Zinsser wanted to get to the heart of the locations, asking the people that worked there and operated behind the scenes what it was truly like there, at that spot. Why did people visit? What made it special and worthy? What was it really like?
Reading about locations in a boring old textbook doesn’t bring places alive, so Zinsser wanted to see them for himself. So he did, and he wrote about it. His beautiful, non-fiction prose helps take us to those places, painting pictures in our mind until we can get there ourselves in person.
Zinsser is a true craftsman with words. He will talk about a place with such perfect description that you can see it clearly in your mind, knowing that no other words should have been used. His kind of writing is what many writers strive to create. So, as readers, our takeaways from this book are more than informational. They are visual. It feels like we are with him on his journey.
From the chapter on Niagara Falls:
Niagara Falls existed only in the attic of my mind where collective memory is stored: scraps of songs about honeymooning couples, vistas by painters who tried to get the plummeting waters to hold still, film clips of Marilyn Monroe running for her life in Niagara, odds and ends of lore about stuntmen who died going over the falls, and always, somewhere among the scraps, a boat called Maid of the Mist, which took tourists…where? Behind the falls? Under the falls? Death hovered at the edge of the images in my attic, or at least danger. But I had never thought of going to see the place itself. That was for other people. Now I wanted to be one of those other people. –from American Places
Though I always want to travel and see more of this country and the world in which we live, this book only spurned me on, making me lament the fact that I can’t travel extensively at the present. But I want to eventually do as he has done, travel around and absorb the history, geography, and life held in each one of these places, and in the thousands of other, unmentioned places in our country. I can’t wait to do this at my leisure, unhurried.
My only complaint about the book is the cover. To me, it doesn’t reflect its interior. It shows plenty of patriotic colors, and a nice arrangement of the locations visited, but it doesn’t evoke the journey that was undertaken, the lessons learned, or the resulting descriptive prose.
American Places is a wonderful read for travelers, historians, and literary sorts. Give it a try this year or next, and see how its destinations compare to your experiences. I, for one, am reading it cover to cover, and then seeking out everything else I can find by William Zinsser. This is non-fiction literature.
Note: I received a copy of this book for review purposes.