Home of the Brave


When I was about ten years old, it became clear that I needed glasses. Not immediately clear, but eventually clear. There was a substantial period of floundering that may not have lasted as long as it seems in retrospect, but mere weeks often seem like an eternity for youngsters. My perceptions may also be colored by the fact that I cannot now, and could not then, fathom the motives and perceptions of the adults around me who had to come to the conclusion that I had impaired vision. I know only what I recall. What they were thinking is and was beyond my reach, especially with the distance of more than half a century.

What I recall, however, is extremely important. It played a role in shaping who I was then, what I became, and my own memories of childhood. I recall, for instance, that for reasons of her own, my mother placed great emphasis on good penmanship. As we learned cursive writing in the fourth grade, however, my own penmanship left much to be desired, no doubt because a young man with a combination of astigmatism and myopia simply is not going to enjoy the same level of hand-eye coordination as someone with perfect vision. My mother would ponder why I could not get better grades in this supposedly vital subject, one that legendarily seems never to have hindered any doctor’s career, though it may have caused many thousands of pharmacists to struggle in deciphering prescriptions. My fourth-grade teacher may have sensed the importance my mother placed on this arcane subject. She eventually theorized one day that perhaps I just lacked the hand-eye coordination necessary to do better. Since this was said directly to me, it did not do wonders for my self-confidence.

Neither did my mother’s penchant for questioning why I held the newspaper so close to my eyes when I read. The answer now seems painfully obvious. It was the only way I could read it. But the habit bothered her, and she made that clear. That too did little for my self-confidence. Years later, as I have watched many young people eschew reading entirely, I have wondered why it did not seem more impressive that someone my age was digesting the daily newspaper in the first place. Maybe it did not seem so unusual in the late 1950s, though I am not sure that is true. I actually wanted to know what the newspaper contained every day. I learned a great deal very early as a result. While I needed no encouragement to continue in that vein, it does amaze me that I do not recall hearing any, either.

But the most noticeable impact to my dignity at that age was very visible, discouraging, and sometimes a bit painful. I was never the first person picked for softball games and other team sports for a good reason. I could barely see the ball coming. I suffered more than one black eye from playing the outfield and literally not seeing a fly ball until it was on top of me. Until then, it was a white blur in the sky, out there somewhere, a blob I often missed that fell to the ground, but sometimes one that hit me square in the head before I got a glove up to catch it. Black eyes from a fist fight are one thing: They can serve as trophies even if they suggest that the other guy had a faster delivery. Black eyes from a failure to see the ball coming are embarrassing. But they do lead to an inevitable conclusion, at least when they keep recurring: This kid just can’t see the ball. (Maybe that explains why he can’t hit it, either!) Eventually, my parents took me to an optometrist, forced to question, as I recall, the school nurse’s previous finding that my vision was fine. Clearly, it was not. Eventually, after some difficult testing sessions, I was fitted with thick glasses that remedied the problem.

The physical problem, that is. The psychological impact lingered. To this day, since one really cannot wear glasses while swimming, I find underwater swimming a unique challenge because I lose the clarity of vision they afford. I never became comfortable with diving for the same reason. In Little League, my batting average was .100-something because I was initially more inclined to duck the oncoming pitches than to swing at them, and no coach seemed to deem my pathetic case worth the trouble of some special effort to help overcome that deficiency (if they even understood it). Only as an adult did softball become fun. By then I had acquired a more daring attitude. The same is true with underwater swimming, which eventually became an adventure.

Which gets to my first point: One thing I learned slowly and with difficulty as I grew up was that it is far easier to exhibit physical courage in trying new things when you can see clearly. Blurred, near-sighted vision undermines one’s self-confidence. You become innately less willing to test limits, to try things, to push boundaries. What gradually worked in my favor over the years was that I did seem to have a good deal of intellectual acuity, which allowed me to think things through, to assess situations, and to acquire confidence in my own judgment. It took much longer to overcome the emotional isolation and to let my inner compulsive extrovert take over and direct my life. Those who know me now would have a hard time recognizing the pre-teen who struggled through the early 1960s.

But that brings me to my second point: What I also learned, again gradually and with some difficulty, is that what was physically true about courage is also metaphorically true about life itself. It is much harder to be courageous without a clear vision of your purpose and goals in life, without some clear sense of mission. You can have 20/20 vision and still be myopic and astigmatic, and I say this despite my innate dislike for hearing “myopic” used as a term of derision. There are few better examples than the physical, moral, and political courage of Mohandas Gandhi (who wore spectacles, by the way), who suffered physical blows, imprisonment, fasting, and ultimately assassination, all while clinging tenaciously to a powerful moral vision of the future. A former pastor of mine, the late Rev. Roy Wingate of Glori Dei Lutheran Church in Iowa City, once said in conversation that much prophecy consists of little more than “knowing that water runs downhill.” The hitch was that Gandhi had to see across a wide enough horizon to know that the water would ultimately run toward independence for India, without requiring a violent revolution to drive out the British. He astonished British authorities with his bold prediction that they would simply find one day that the time had come for them to leave. And so they did. It was a Hindu fundamentalist, not the British, who killed him.

What does all this have to do with a book review blog? The best books have always been about bold visions. They impart clarity of thought with a view of the world that is clearly expressed by an author who has mastered the craft of writing in a quest to convey that vision. We may not always agree with that vision. In fact, it is impossible to agree with every author one reads; many contradict each other. I can appreciate Hemingway for the view of life that he offers without necessarily accepting his philosophy, and he can enrich my outlook on life nonetheless. Books with an overly narrow vision have no staying power. As an urban planner, I have heard many times the famous (though possibly apocryphal) quote from Daniel Burnham: “Make no small plans, for they have no power to stir men’s souls.” The same is true of books. Books and plans, in fact, have a great deal in common with each other.

That guides my purpose in reviewing books on this blog. I look first for the overarching vision, the idea the author is trying to convey, and all else flows from there. Writing technique is important, but it must serve a greater master. The depth and the details are critical, but they too must follow a well-lit path to some conclusion. In this blog, I will not be reviewing books that are merely entertaining or flippant, but books that, in my opinion at least, matter.

I am an author myself. I know what it is like to struggle in front of a keyboard to find the right way to state a point, to struggle with clarifying the point itself, to find the best way to engage the reader on a journey of discovery. I do not think it is easy because I have never found it particularly easy to write a book. I have done it when I felt the topic important enough and my vision clear enough, and I know how hard it is when I am unsure I have even reached that starting point. And that is precisely why I appreciate the enormous power of a truly good book, conveying a truly important vision with clarity and skill. I hope you enjoy the reviews, and if you have something important to say, I invite you to use the blog to respond.

Jim Schwab