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Jim and Deborah Fallows recommend 6 books that depict “the heart of America”

And most of them were written before 1900.

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Small town main street, Anywhere, US. Shutterstock

Jim and Deborah Fallows honeymooned at a work camp in Ghana (though they wouldn’t recommend it) and have been traveling the world ever since. The Fallowses discuss what they’ve learned from the places their work has taken them — she’s a linguist and he’s a journalist — on this week’s episode of The Ezra Klein Show.

During the course of the conversation, Ezra brings up “The Fallows Question,” posed by David Brooks in the New York Times in reference to the globetrotting couple: “If you could move to the place on earth where history is most importantly being made right now, where would you go?”

Apparently, in this moment, that place is America. More specifically, American small towns. The Fallowses have spent the past five years visiting towns all over America and speaking to citizens about their lives, what matters to them, and the changes they’re making on a local level to improve their communities — without asking about political identities. A book chronicling their journey called Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America will be released May 8.

Buy Our Towns here: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Ezra usually asks guests for three book recommendations, but because there are two of them, he asks the Fallowses for two books each — they both give three anyway.

Deborah Fallows says, “I tend to like to read books that are ... of the place or of the moment where we currently are.” When they lived in Malaysia, she read about colonial life; in China, she read about ancient Chinese culture. While traversing the United States, she read “early, lesser-known adventure stories of Mark Twain,” the journals of Lewis and Clark, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

While she admits that Lewis and Clark’s journals aren’t very fun to read, through these accounts of early American life, she found that they were “covering the same territory and seeing the same places” as the travelers she was reading about. Tocqueville particularly resonated with her in his depictions of “how Americans just were at heart.” Fallows doesn’t specify which Twain stories she read, but his travelogue Roughing It, in which he documents a stagecoach journey through the American West, thematically fits. “Just seeing the continuity from those old, kind of dusty writers through to now,” she says, “I found very educational.”

Buy The Journals of Lewis and Clark here: Amazon | Barnes & Noble
Buy Democracy in America here: Amazon | Barnes & Noble
Buy Roughing It here: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Jim Fallows realizes that Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant will be familiar to Ezra Klein Show listeners, but he found it particularly relevant to their exploration of American life. In addition to being a nuanced portrait of an easily dismissed American political figure, the book depicts struggles the United States have gone through which “have great resonances from that era to now.”

Buy Grant here: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Of author Theodore Dreiser, Jim Fallows says, “It’s remarkable that somebody who is as terrible a writer as he is sentence by sentence can be arguably the great powerful American novelist of just portraying the reality of American life in its aspirations and its humiliations and its pathos.” The two Dreiser novels Fallows recommends are Sister Carrie, “which could have been plucked from [today’s] headlines,” and An American Tragedy, which “remains the central American novel of class, of ambition, of idealism, of deception, of punishment, law and order, of the role of religion, and of the role of migration.”

Buy Sister Carrie here: Amazon | Barnes & Noble
Buy An American Tragedy here: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

You can listen to the full conversation with Jim and Deborah Fallows on The Ezra Klein Show by subscribing on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, or by streaming the episode here: