News & Politics

Can 50 Books Capture America’s 50 States?

A book group at the Finnish Embassy is trying to find out.

Over on Embassy Row, a quintet of Finns has undertaken an intriguing pandemic reading project. The group is working its way through 50 books—one for each US state. First up was Alabama (Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird), which they tackled in fall of 2020. Then came Alaska (Velma Wallis’s Raising Ourselves), Arizona (Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist), and Arkansas (Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Things seemed to be progressing nicely. Until California, that is. The Golden State presented such an abundance of literary options, they realized it would be hard to pick a representative volume. Should they go for John Steinbeck? Amy Tan? Joan Didion?

The ambitious plan was the brainchild of a couple of staffers at the Finnish Embassy: Tarja Aarnio, assistant to the ambassador, and Niina Nykänen, a political-affairs counselor. “During Covid times, the traveling restrictions put a hold on us getting to know the US, which is an important part of going on a diplomatic posting—getting to know the country and its history and culture,” says Nykänen. “Since we were not able to do that, we thought we would do it through some literature, which, of course, the US has a lot to offer.”

It’s not a huge group—just five core participants, along with a number of part-timers and boosters. They’re currently at Indiana (Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five), having made stops in Delaware (Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans), Idaho (Tara Westover’s Educated), and even the would-be state of Washington, DC (James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider, which they acknowledge may not be the most representative pick for the District). As for the California conundrum, the group finally voted for Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

There have been hits and misses. Nykänen particularly enjoyed Illinois (Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451), while Aarnio singles out Arizona (the Udall book). Both struggled with Connecticut (Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). “It was one of those books where you really need to concentrate when you read it,” says Aarnio, who is now back in Helsinki but continues to participate remotely. “Maybe that period of my life, I didn’t have the time.”

Overall, they’ve found the experiment useful, especially the way it has illuminated how vast and diverse the US is. “All states have different characteristics,” says Nykänen. “Nothing is [entirely] black or white. That’s something that I maybe didn’t appreciate enough.”

Meanwhile, the Finnish ambassador, Mikko Hautala, has been following the group’s progress with interest. But while he has a degree in philosophy and—according to his bio—“likes to read and think,” Hautala hasn’t yet joined any of the group’s discussions. After all, says Nykänen, “he has many other issues on his agenda.”

This article appears in the March 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Politics and Culture Editor

Rob Brunner grew up in DC and moved back in 2017 to join Washingtonian. Previously, he was an editor and writer at Fast Company and other publications. He lives with his family in Chevy Chase DC.