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'The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America': Tom Zoellner’s Essay Collection A Roadmap Through Contradictory American Histories

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I imagine that when you get into a car with Tom Zoellner and head for the open road, he will know exactly where he is going. He will work with his car’s idiosyncratic sputters and mine the places along the highways and byways and lead you to stories about people and places we’d never otherwise experience. This is exactly what we experience in reading Tom Zoellner’s latest book The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America.

Highlights from the Interview with Tom Zoellner


On the “changes” in our “Changing America”

Broadly speaking, there are two forces for enormous change that are slow moving, but inexorable. The first is the internet. It’s really hard to overstate the sociological impact this amorphous reality in our lives has had in terms of destroying once solid industries. The one that hits me the hardest is, of course, the newspaper business, which has been absolutely decimated by online news reporting and the consequent degeneration of certain information sources. The second force is income inequality, which is actually related to the internet in this way that, those people who work in certain industries, such as financial services, such as information, such as data, such as e-commerce, they become liberated from geography. They can live anywhere. They do business in the cloud, so to speak. Whereas those who work in other industries, such as manufacturing, retail, mining, healthcare, geography remains an anchor. So broadly speaking, the book as a whole is about geography, about American geography on the ways that it is both broadened, but also frightfully limited by the forces of inequality and the internet.

On still using paper maps

With a map, you have to maintain a certain presence of mind. You have to warrant yourself in terms of the cardinal directions. You have to sort of pay attention to the streets you're passing. Whereas we all know with a phone, you can just almost put yourself on autopilot and just be guided. They're almost like a railroad track. And that's, that's no fun… It requires a conversance with the landscape. Where I live in Los Angeles, there used to be this encyclopedia-sized publication called The Thomas Guide, which would tell you a map of every paved street in Los Angeles… You know, I have one of the very last ones to be printed in 2011. It's a massive thing that everyone used to have to kind of put on their laps and sort of understand where they were. And I think people understood Los Angeles a lot better with having to go through that rather than just sort of being told where to go on their phones.

On witnessing the demolition of his grandmother’s house

I think most families in the United States have a little postage stamp of ancestral geography, a place where their parents, their grandparents, or perhaps even many generations back, had a house and land if they were involved in farming. And those of us in the later generations may or may not have a relationship with that piece of land. I happened to have obviously visited my grandma at many times… A Phoenix suburb had since sort of become the very snooty high-income suburb with golf courses and McMansions, and our working class family that didn't get to participate in that at all. Our house was very modest. My grandma was a lifelong civil servant of the state of Arizona. And so it comes the time when, grandma passes on, and we sell the house. So all the land. And down comes the house. It was, in real estate parlance, a tear-down. And so some listeners may have had this sort of experience or even choice of when the house is going to be torn down. Do you go watch it? It was going to be painful. Who wants to see that? This is a house that I have had memories of since I was a toddler. Do I really want to see it destroyed in the name of some rich person's McMansion? I finally decided that I should go to be almost a representative of the family there at the very end. And it was a miserable experience. Just so sad and a reminder of mortality, a reminder of how we don't own anything on this earth. We're renters. We have such a short life span, you know, we're in between two yawning unknowns — the time before we were born and the time after we die, And we're left sometimes with contemplating the shells of what stands and what has remained of those people that we loved. And so, as I say, it was horrible. I wouldn't ever want to do it again, but I'm glad I did it.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.