Why is Colorado rectangular? Why isn’t Nevada? Why are Vermont and New Hampshire all but identical, but upside down in relation to each other? How did so many western states become so large? In How the States Got Their Shapes, Mark Stein — a playwright and screenwriter — has undertaken a deceptively simple task: to explain how the 50 states acquired their present shape. His is not a book aimed at professional cartographers but rather a straightforward, alphabetical survey of each and every United State, and it mines just below the surface of the map.
Pick a state: Arizona? Arizona’s eastern border, which separates it from New Mexico, was established in 1863. That much we know, but some questions remain: Why is that border a vertical line? Why is it located exactly where it is? And what the heck is a Gadsden Purchase? Within three paragraphs, you’ll know. Stein’s generously illustrated book is a storehouse of historical footnotes rather than a coherent narrative. This isn’t a big problem. The writing is sometimes arid, but the information is fascinating, and there are even moments of subtle levity: “Aren’t the reasons for Florida’s borders pretty obvious?” Stein asks. Not as obvious as the reasons for Hawaii’s! you’ll answer.
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