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Plotting out the plots: ‘Novel’ map puts great books in their place

When Pennsylvania artist Mark Adams set out to create his latest, one-of-a-kind map of America, he couldn’t have anticipated how much time he’d spend “in” the Deep South.

Not because the real-life road system down here is so horribly confusing.

Because the fictional stories set here are so utterly compelling.

“The temptation to draw and plot these stories in the context of a map was too strong to deny,” Adams said about these “stories” and all the others that are the basis of The Great American Novel Map.

The handsomely illustrated, hand-drawn map is the second unique take on that old glove compartment staple that Adams has come up with. The first, a state-by-state depiction of the country’s greatest and (let’s hope) purely mythic monsters (we’re looking at you, Mothman, Bigfoot, and here, in Georgia, Altamaha-Ha), was more lowbrow than the “Novel” map. And, doubtless, less of a debate magnet for book lovers everywhere.

Striving to highlight “truly remarkable stories that are so specifically unique to our country” and consulting everything and everyone from learned lists (The American Scholar, The Modern Library) to high school English teachers, Adams eventually settled on 42 novels whose place on the map is directly linked to their fictional or real-life settings.

It’s why Tennessee gets to claim Flannery O’Connor, who mostly lived and wrote in her native Georgia, but who set 1952’s “Wise Blood” up there in the fictional town of Taulkinham. The map’s theme is also in keeping with an important element found in many significant works of fiction, said Emory University English professor Barbara Ladd.

“Place has been central to American fiction, to most fiction in fact,” said Ladd, co-editor of “The Oxford Handbook to the Literature of the U.S. South.” She hadn’t yet seen the map, but was pleased to learn that the novels featured on it are set in many different parts of the country, including urban areas like New York, Detroit and New Orleans. “Place is a carrier of memory, it shapes language and character, and it structures plot and story,” she explained.

Certain inclusions, like “The Great Gatsby,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” feel like no-brainers. A few others might have more traditional literary scholars scratching their heads — then again, you try to convince someone that “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “The Shining” aren’t, uh, remarkable stories with strong senses of place.

Only 23 states rate at least one spot on the map (California leads the way with six). Georgia gets one, “The Color Purple,” which takes place in a rural Georgia that presumably owes much to author Alice Walker’s native Eatonton, in Putnam County. (In Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film version, letters to the main character, Celie, are addressed to Hart County.) It’s hard to imagine anyone arguing with the inclusion of that modern classic, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1983.

But should the omission of “Gone With the Wind” have folks here hurling “Suh, you have offended our honuh!” accusations Adams’ way?

Not necessarily, said Joe Davich.

“‘Gone With the Wind’ often shows up on lists of the best or most recognizable novels in each state, but I think that has a lot to do with the movie,” said Davich, executive director of the Georgia Center for the Book. In fact, both “The Color Purple” and “Gone With the Wind” appeared on the center’s very first “Georgia Top 25 Reading List,” which was released in 2002.

“I think Georgians and Southerners by and large have enough good books to love that we don’t have to cling to and identify with just one,” Davich added.

If it helps, Adams said Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War-era epic just missed the cut at No. 43 as he endeavored to fit the hand-drawn icons he created for each book on the poster-sized map. And — take that, literary lah-dee-dah New England! — the South led all regions, with 13 different “Great American Novels” set here (technically, we share Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” with New York, but South Carolina wound up getting the dot on the map).

Consider Davich proud, but unsurprised.

“Even the modern writers down here, we do have a sense of place,” he said. “There’s something that literally comes up from the red clay, a fearlessness in the way people write here that goes all the way through today.”

Adams hopes the map sparks some stimulating conversations about books and encourages people to journey to the settings of these “truly remarkable” stories, if only on the page.

Make that especially on the page.

“We should all be traveling more, caring about the things that make this country unique, and thinking about things like our cultural heritage,” Adams said.

“Oh, and we should definitely be reading more books, too.”

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