Review: How the States Got Their Shapes


Reviewed on Goodreads.com

How the States Got Their ShapesI had hoped for an in-depth history of the American states’ borders when I first learned about the book How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein. I should have known that a mere 300 pages could not provide the realization of that hope, nor could the author given his credentials. Indeed, a mere glance at Stein’s bio on the back page would indicate that he’s not the one equipped to deliver such a lofty goal as he is very clearly a writer for the stage and nothing more.

It’s apparent the further you read that Stein is not a historian. Nor is he really scholarly. Nor did he have any previous knowledge about the topics of geography, detailed American history, surveying principles and practices, or, dare I say it, formatting a book about any of those topics.

And with this last quibble is where I place most of my contention with said book. I can overlook in my critique Stein’s apparent lack of understanding about the multi-faceted subjectivism of the perspectives of history. That topic is not Mainstream Approved just yet. But what I cannot overlook is his disorganized approach at attempting to compile a history of the states’ borders.

Where he fails miserably is the choice to alphabetize the compilation of information by state name. Thus, we begin with Alabama and end with Wyoming. Of course, this poses an obvious problem as almost all states share common borders with other states; the information on a border would essentially need to be repeated in multiple sections. And it’s apparent that his choice to alphabetize by state led the author to make an even tougher choice during his writing:  whether to treat each state “bio” as independent and risk the repetitiveness of mulling over the same stories, the same backgrounds, the same treaties and negotiations and surveyor errors countless times in the same book; or choose to provoke a certain level of anticipation and suspense by describing only a small portion of the really juicy border disputes and controversies on one state and then merely saving the rest for the adjacent state tens of pages later. Stein appears to have decided to herald back to the very bygone political leader’s choices he has written about by “Compromising” where he placed the boundaries of his work.

At times Stein clearly chooses to reveal it all in a selected state’s bio. But at others, he splices the information between two or more states. The former results in abundantly wealthy sections towards the front of the book… and not so lengthy sections towards the tail end, which makes reading the last 100 pages or so rather dry and quick. The latter results in decentralized information being given on any event or instance, and the need to reference multiple states to get the full story is vital to the reader’s understanding.

One must wonder if a better organization could exist. Perhaps a chronological approach rather than alphabetized. This would have resulted in less overlap between state histories as well as finding information about an event all at one location. By beginning at the first events (such as the boundary disputes between Massachusetts Bay Colony and its neighbors New Hampshire, Maine, and Connecticut) and ending with the most recent (like the 1990’s resolution of who exactly owns Ellis Island? New York or New Jersey?). But this seemed to be too ambitious for someone like Stein. And, perhaps, rightly so as it would have taken a scholar to truly delve into the subject in this way, thus revealing that Stein is, in fact, not a scholar.

So from the outset, Stein destines himself to under-representing the topic at hand and condemns himself to a level of quality fit for the History Channel… which is not a compliment. Indeed, Stein’s book was even turned into a History Channel series with the same name, and the several episodes I’ve seen were very representative of Stein’s overall caliber with the 300 pages he managed to write:  compromised, underwhelming, and unscholarly. In other words, par for the course in terms of the History Channel; sub par in terms of actual geographical and historical works go. Sounds about right for Mr. Stein’s credentials.

But surely he accomplishes something, right? It took me much searching and pondering to give positive criticism about this book. What I’ve concluded is that for the lay-reader that is searching to get a trivial and very rudimentary understanding of the subject, How the States Got Their Shapes would be a great introductory read. “A good place to start” (my motto for Wikipedia), should extend to this book. But Wikipedia seems to even do this better than Stein, which sums up all 306 pages rather succinctly. It certainly inspires the reader to investigate further the various treaties and negotiations and agreements of our history as they pertain to the state boundaries. But, even here, one must question why they would spend $15 on a paperback book when Wikipedia exists for free.

I can only recommend this book to two types of people:  junior and senior high schoolers looking to start a journey down the road of geography or state-making; and the typical geographically ignorant American who’s looking to become a little less ignorant about the country they live in. All the rest need not apply.

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One Response to Review: How the States Got Their Shapes

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