Review: How The States Got Their Shapes

How The States Got Their Shapes, by Mark Stein, is an odd little book about history and geography of US states.  It’s fun to hang a little history lesson how each jog of the various state lines reflects a human interaction that’s fairly permanently etched into the landscape.  I was also happy to have found and read this on the Kindle.

The US is a federation of semi-autonomous states that joined together to gain their freedom.  This has a surprising effect on the shape of states.  The original 13 (or maybe 14 depending on how you feel about Vermont) were laid out according to the needs and sometimes the whims of the British monarchy.  As they came together, the disparities in state layouts and populations influenced the creation of the bicameral legislature.  That’s interesting enough, but the reaction of Congress was to attempt to maintain size and population parity of subsequent states.  That logical and surprising decision is one of the revelations of How the States…

There are others, from the concessions made to absorb Texas and California, to the multiple surveying errors – intentional or accidental – to the effects of the various natural features on the economy and geography of states.  Unsurprisingly, the Missouri compromise is visible in state boundaries, and the Civil War plays a role in Nevada’s borders.  There are surprisingly many good stories to tell about state lines.

The layout of the book makes it more a reference than a narrative.  After a short overview of principles and key national events, Stein proceeds state by state and border by border around the country.  The states are considered in alphabetical order, which means the same story gets told at least twice.  It can make it a little difficult to follow themes.  The fairly brief length also means that on some occasions, only the beginning of the story is in here. Still, this is a book that I expect to return to occasionally, when I forget why a particular blip is there on a boundary.

I was happy to see this on a Kindle for two reasons.  First, I found this odd thing in the Kindle store.  I was afraid that as I did more shopping on-line, the opportunities to run into interesting things like this would be reduced.  Apparently this is not the case.  Secondly, the book is chock full of maps that were generally easy to read in the Kindle.  I hadn’t been looking for a book full of maps to evaluate the Kindle’s illustration rendering, but I found one, and it was an enjoyable read.

One bit of Kindling that would have been nice would be better indexing.  Frequently part of a shared border’s story is told in one state’s entry and referenced in another.  These are not set up as Kindle cross references, so looking up the end of the reference is more painful than it needs to be.

Overall a fun book that told me a bunch about my country and my Kindle.


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