Addendum: A new edition of this book came out in September, 2009, it is shown second in the column to the right. I have not revised the text below to reflect this new edition.
There has not been a really good guide to America since Neal Pierce and Jerry Hagstrom’s The Book of America: Inside 50 States Today, published in the early 1980’s (and still available at www.abebooks.com). That may seem surprising. What do I mean when I say a good guide to America? Certainly there are plenty of travel guides, some of them excellent.
What I am talking about is a guide to the American people, where they live, how they live, what their attitudes are like. Our nation is, despite all the cries about too much standardization, still one of the most diverse countries on earth. Spend a day in Miami, jump on a plane to Boise, and try to convince me those are the same. Compare Burlington, Vermont and Burlington, Iowa. They are not just different because the weather and physical geography are different. The people are different, the industries are different, the architectures are different. The diners are different.
I, for one, need a handbook to help me navigate this wonderful and diverse land, something to put alongside my trusty road atlas.
The closest thing available is The Almanac of American Politics, by Michael Barone and others, an amazing book which comes out every two years. The 2008 edition came out in late 2007 and the next one should be out at the end of 2009. But you don’t have to wait that long to start learning and improving your life. I have purchased every issue since it began, way back in 1972, and keep them all handy for reference.
You might have guessed that this book does not position itself as a guide to America and Americans. It is a handbook of politics. The core of the book is a “down-the-center” unbiased review of every member of the House and Senate and every Governor. On the legislators, it contains their voting records on key issues. And there is plenty of election data, so you can see whether the voters love their candidates, or whether they just squeaked into office.
I would not consider going near a voting booth without studying these profiles of politicians. This book is the only consistent, balanced source I know of that informs us about these folks, their strengths and weaknesses. I could watch hundreds of hours of cable news – and have – without learning 99% of the information that is in this book. Even the congressmen and women I think are idiots may surprise me with their hard work and sometimes even-handed voting, whereas some of my faves are not so shiny upon closer examination. In a year like 2008 when so many Presidential candidates were from the Senate, this book was a goldmine of insights.
Of course if you are a real political junkie, are going to meet your legislator or governor, or have any other reason to really study up on them, this book is a “must have.” It has been called “the Bible of American Politics,” and I doubt you will find many political journalists’ desks without it.
But even if you never intend to vote, if you just want to wander about and around America and understand her better, you need this book. Because for each congressional district, it gives a profile of the people that live there – both quantitatively and qualitatively. Find the numbers on their income and race, as well as text about how they view life, where they work, and how they think. There is no substitute for these kinds of insights. So all you marketing types out there need this book just as much as you political junkies. It is not the cheapest book, at $74.95 list, but it is a bargain relative to what it contains. I can only imagine the amount of work that goes into it.
BUY THE NEW EDITION SHOWN BELOW!