Forty Columns and Praise for Prairie Lights

Note: A slightly different version of this essay can be found at: Jim Throgmorton, “Still going after 40 columns,” Iowa City Press-Citizen (May 11, 2011), p. 11A.

This marks the 40th column I have written since my first on June 4, 2008. The very structure this sentence reminds me of what I would say when first entering the confessional booth as a small Catholic boy: “Father, forgive me for I have sinned. It’s been forty (or whatever) weeks since my last confession.”

So indulge me, fellow readers, while I reflect back upon those many columns, confess my writer’s sins, and do my penance.

In that first column I said that I intended to draw upon my experiences as a professor of urban planning, a former member of Iowa City’s Council, a 22-year resident of Iowa City, and a frequent traveler to other cities in Europe and the U. S., to introduce new ideas, facilitate innovative thinking about Iowa City’s past and future, and stimulate public conversations that might help improve the quality of the Iowa City area. Perhaps a bit ambitiously, I hoped the column would help us see this familiar place with unfamiliar eyes.

That sounds nice but, to be honest, I didn’t really know what I would end up writing about. How could I? Like you, I am immersed in an unfolding history full of unpredictable twists and turns. Did I know that we would experience a flood more severe than the one in 1993? That Wall Street manipulators would cause our economy to shudder and almost collapse? That a charismatic young African-American would be elected president? That the “Tea Party” movement would arise in response to that president and change the electoral map? That populist movements would drive dictators from power in the Middle East and unsettle conventional politics all around the world? That Vershawn Young and I would invent a series of public events concerning the southeast side of Iowa City? That Osama Bin Laden would by killed while I was writing this piece?

Nope. But that points to one of the aspects of life that truly fascinates me. In her 1958 book, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt (a political philosopher), writes, “It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before” (p. 157). But she also reports that action is riddled with frustrations, primarily because action and speech take place within a “web of relationships.” Because it takes place within this web, every action stimulates a chain reaction and every process becomes the cause of new processes.

This truth about action can prove enormously frustrating for anybody who intends to accomplish predetermined results. Such a person soon finds that his or her action initiates a process that cannot be reversed, includes multiple authors who are often anonymous, and has consequences that cannot be predicted.

Respond to an annoying email by sending an intemperate response. You will soon see what I mean.

This line of thinking applies as much to me as to anyone else. Consequently I have had to learn that once I’ve written a column I have to let it go, to let it reverberate through our city’s web of relationships.

So as my penance I want to end this month’s column with new tweak of the web. I love Prairie Lights. It’s a great store with a wonderful set of employees (Jan, Paul, Deb, Terry, and many others). Virtually every one of the books I’ve referred to over the past three years were bought there. And I can’t begin to tell you how many great novels Paul Ingram has persuaded me to read.

So, if you are ever in Iowa City, go to Prairie Lights. Buy a good book. Talk about it with friends. And let your conversation pulse through this great web in which we live.

NOTE: HERE ARE JUST A FEW OF THE GREAT BOOKS I HAVE READ AS A RESULT OF WALKING THROUGH PRAIRIE LIGHTS OVER THE PAST 2-3 YEARS: Ian McEwan’s (2010) Solar, G. B. Edwards’ (1981) The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, Anita Brookner’s (2002) The Next Big Thing. D. M. Thomas’ (1981) The White Hotel, Chloe Aridjis’ (2009) Book of Clouds, Garth Stein’s (2008) The Art of Racing in the Rain, Teju Cole’s (2011) Open City, Steig Larsson’s (2008) The Girl with the Dagon Tattoo, Marilynne Robinson’s (2004) Gilead, Cormac McCarthy’s (2006) The Road, David Benioff’s (2008) City of Thieves, Colum McCann’s (2009) Let the Great World Spin, David Albaharis’ (2004) Gotz and Meyer, Francoise Sagan’s (2009) That Mad Ache, Phillip Meyer’s (2009) American Rust, Dave Eggers’ (2009) Zeitoun, Paul Harding’s (2009) Tinkers, James Howard Kunstler’s (2008) World Made by Hand, William Maxwell’s (1980) So Long, See You Tomorrow, and all the great World War II era central European spy novels by Alan Furst.

In the world of non-fiction, my friends at Prairie Lights have helped me find and read: Michael J. Graetz’s (2011) The End of Energy: The Unmaking of America’s Environment, Security, and Independence; James Hansen’s (2009) Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity; Didier Maleuvre’s (2011) The Horizon: A History of Our Infinite Longing; Patrick Leigh Fermor’s (1977/2005) A Time of Gifts and (1986/2005) Between the Woods and the Water; Martha Nussbaum’s (2010) Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities; F. A. Hayek’s (1944/2007) The Road to Serfdom; Kate Zernike’s (2010) Boiling Mad: Inside the Tea Party; Brad Spellberg’s (2009) Rising Plague: The Global Threat from Deadly Bacteria and Our Dwindling Arsenal to Fight Them; Sara Maitland’s (2008) A Book of Silence; Diarmaid MacCullouch’s (2009) Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years; Daniel Walker Howe’s (2007) What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of American, 1815-1848; Alice Albinia’s (2008) Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River; Trevor Royle’s (2000) Crimea: The Great Crimean War 1854-1856; and Michael Welland’s (2009) Sand: The Never-Ending Story.

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