Optimism about America

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In a February 2017 column, David Brooks wrote about "the Fallows Question, which I unfurl at dinner parties: If you could move to the place on earth where history is most importantly being made right now, where would you go?”

The Fallows question is based on the life and work of Jim and Deborah Fallows. Jim is a national correspondent at the Atlantic; Deborah is a writer and linguist. When Japan looked like the future, they moved there to watch it happen; when software was eating the world, they moved to Seattle and Jim dove inside Microsoft; when China was on the rise, that was where they made their home. It’s a reason, when asked, that I’ve always named Jim Fallows as one of my few must-read writers: His journalism is thick with a wisdom that only comes from having immersed himself in many, many different lives.

Over the past few years, however, the Fallows have believed the story is happening, well, here. They came to believe that the story America is telling about itself to itself — a story of national decline, of bitter political polarization, of rural resentment and coastal elitism and tribal identity and spiritual malaise — is wrong. And so they got in their plane (yes, Jim is a pilot too), and they spent years traveling the country, trying to see it more clearly by seeing its places more precisely. It has left them with a sense of hope that feels almost alien in this age.

Their new book, Our Towns, is a travelogue of this journey and what it revealed to them about America. In this conversation, we talk about the optimism it left them with, as well as what they’ve learned designing their lives around adventure and travel, why they spent their honeymoon in a work camp in Ghana, how to make life feel longer, whether our political identities are our true identities, why Americans hate the media, and the reason libraries are more important than ever.

I’ve always admired the Fallowses’ for both their work and their wisdom, and it was a pleasure, in this interview, to get to explore both.

Deborah's recommended books:

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

Journals of Lewis and Clark edited by Bernard DeVoto

James's recommended books:

Grant by Ron Chernow

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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