“It’s kind of uncool to be patriotic these days,” according to Tom Zoellner, an author with Phoenix roots whose newest book explores the American landscape. “It’s putting yourself in league with conspiracy elements.”
That hasn’t stopped him from addressing patriotism, or exploring its myriad expressions in America’s present and past. With a new collection of essays titled The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America, Zoellner uses geographic landscapes as a lens for viewing the social, cultural, and political underpinnings of contemporary life.
Zoellner (who, full disclosure, is an occasional contributor to Phoenix New Times) insists his latest title “isn’t a political book,” despite its treatment of topics at the heart of political discourse, including immigration, capitalism, and religion. “It’s not partisan.” Even so, The National Road reflects his own take on patriotism during divisive times. “We are all deeply patriotic,” Zoellner says. “But we all express it in different ways.”
His own patriotism takes the form of traveling the vast expanse of America, learning about its many historical and contemporary iterations through conversations with the people who populate the land, as well as diverse literary and cultural sources. “People are far more determined by geography than they realize.”
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For Zoellner, there’s a common thread at the heart of American life: It’s the land. “It’s hard not to love the physicality of the world,” he explains. “We love the land and the idea of equality.” His essays lay bare significant inequities, calling forth complexities that defy “the red, white, and blue kind of patriotism.”
Trump gets a single mention in the book, which reflects a far wider lens than divisive ideologies and rhetoric. Still, it’s clear that Zoellner is mindful of Trump’s impact. “There are many things in our national discourse that are profoundly troubling and disgusting,” he says.
He’s hoping the book will leave readers with a sense of optimism. “There are reasons to feel pessimistic about the future and negative about the past, but we’re living on some of the most beautiful land on the planet, in a heterodox nation founded on an incredibly good idea.”
Changing Hands Bookstore presents a live Zoom author appearance with Tom Zoellner, author of The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America, at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 15. Tickets are $5, or free with advance purchase of the book from Changing Hands Bookstore.