Words That Move America

Chicago, a city that has spawned at least its fair share of writers and attracted many more, has spawned a national museum dedicated to people who propagate the written word. The American Writers Museum (AWM) opened May 16 at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, situated amid a dense ecosystem of museums, parks, and other cultural attractions that make living in Chicago such a stimulating experience. Let me just state the basic premise up front: If you live in Chicago, or you are visiting, and you care about or have any curiosity about literature, this is worth a visit. It is not a huge museum, at least not now, and you need not worry that it will take all day. You can spend all day, but you can get a great deal out of it in two or three hours if you wish.

Literature, in the context of AWM, does not only mean fiction or poetry. One point that was immediately obvious to me during a visit last week was that the museum takes a broad view of both “writers” and what constitutes “writing.” Communication comes in many forms, and the museum seeks to explore how those forms change in response to numerous changing conditions in American society. AWM President Carey Cranston reinforced that point with me during a brief walk-through when I arrived, before turning me loose to make my own assessments of the exhibits. Thus, in the various displays one can encounter Charles M. Schulz, the author of the “Peanuts” comic strip, which made points about life, love, and laughter just as surely as Jane Jacobs, discussing the status of urban planning in the 1960s in The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Jean Toomer in Cane, an intriguing mix of fiction techniques that shed life on African-American life in the early 20th century. Creativity is not bounded by genre. It helps define genre.

Hold that thought for a minute while I explore with you the big question that drove me to visit in the first place. It is obvious enough how some other museums dedicated to natural history (Field Museum, e.g.) or technology and science (Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, or the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.) make their subject visual and sometimes even tactile with displays of dinosaur skeletons or space capsules, accompanied by videos that help patrons relive the experience of exploring the moon. How does one take the words of poems, novels, memoirs, and other types of written expression and make them come alive in an institutional setting? After all, any library can create a display of the ten best novelists by simply stacking the books along a display counter to draw attention. As readers, we engage with these works by buying or borrowing the books and, well, reading them. So, what makes an American Writers Museum a vivid encounter with its subject matter?

One answer lies in the timeline that greets you just to the right of the front desk after you enter. Running from 1490 to the present, it is not, as Cranston noted to me, a display of the best writers America has ever seen, but instead provides an emblematic display that allows you to see the relationship of major themes in American history to the writing American authors have produced. The United States of America, an independent nation for only half of that time and a maze of Spanish, French, Dutch, Russian, and British colonies as well as native societies at various times before and since, is rich in historical themes that have inspired literary responses. The vastness of a continent new to Europeans . . . . the interaction of cultures . . . . Civil War and its aftermath . . . . the struggle for civil rights . . . . the fight for dignity and identity for American Indians . . . . immigration and the assimilation of new peoples and cultures . . . . industrialization and its impact on a formerly agrarian nation . . . . America’s emergence on the world stage. One could go on, and one could navigate the endless subthemes and nuances of each topic, which is precisely what American writers, whatever their origins and perspectives, have done for more than five centuries.

Opposite the timeline, and complementing it, is a wall with the names of prominent writers on small boards built in that one can turn for additional information. Many, though not all, feature short videos one can launch with a finger touch that illustrate important points. I played with one for Ray Bradbury, one of my own favorites dating back to high school. The video quotes part of Fahrenheit 451 while showing a pile of books being consumed by fire. Alongside Bradbury’s name is a theme, in his case, Dystopian Literature; this occurs with each writer to help show the range of genre that American literature has produced, how it has responded to both contemporary and larger issues, seeking to excite the visitor’s imagination. Whether intentional or not, it excited mine simply by introducing me to writers previously unfamiliar to me, which is saying a lot. There are American writers of whose work any of us may know little or nothing but who have the potential to stir our thoughts and prod our consciences. That has always been the mission of good writing.

Near all that is a current, periodically changing exhibit, the Meijer Exhibit Gallery, which demonstrates some of the most potent creativity the museum has on display. Its first exhibit displays the work of poet W.S. Merwin, about whom I confess I knew nothing, but who is now a source of fascination for me. The small room one enters for “Palm: All Awake in the Darkness,” features a haunting 12-minute video with no human presence except for the soft voice-over of narrators reading from Merwin’s work dealing with the complex and problematic relationship of humanity and nature. The video features the view from inside a cabin in the Maui rainforest, redolent with the sounds of birds and insects and the abundance of life beneath the forest canopy. You may stand or sit on a simple bench and contemplate this immersive adventure into the mind of a poet. Merwin, now 89, has produced more than 50 volumes of poetry, according to the brochure that complements the exhibit, which discusses writer Gregory Bateson’s concept of an “ecology of ideas,” the network of impressions and perspectives that form our conscious and subconscious minds. Since the late 1970s, Merwin has lived in Hawaii on an old pineapple plantation he has restored to its natural state.

As a Lutheran, I found one other thing haunting. Merwin is a practicing Buddhist, and the brochure contains a typewritten, hand-edited draft of a poem called “Place.” It begins:

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

Curiously, for years, I have known that Martin Luther is reputed to have said, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is upon us, and I know these two men came from very different places to express the same thought. But if a 16th-century religious reformer and a 20tt-century Buddhist poet can reach the same conclusion about the resilience of our commitment to the earth and the stubbornness of faith, perhaps there is hope for us all, after all.

AWM will be sponsoring events in a modest meeting room that features another challenging exhibit, “The Mind of a Writer,” which explores the connections between writer and audience. Professional writers clearly cannot earn a living without an audience, and the practical questions are both how to define and shape that audience and how to reach that audience. The “reach” forces us to explore the role of technology and institutions in facilitating those connections, which clearly have evolved over time. Displays make us think about the evolution of the book shop, starting with the Moravian Book Shop, launched in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1745, largely to import religious publications, but continuing into such modern innovations as Oprah’s Book Club, using the medium of television to connect viewers with writers; bookstore chains such as the now defunct Borders; and Amazon, allowing people to order books through the Internet. Of course, writers have also used periodicals, which in their heyday relied very much on the efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service, as well as other media. Playwrights do not expect people to read their writing, but to hear it on stage. Screenwriters reach people through televised performances of their scripts, and so on. All of that got me wondering whether AWM missed a beat by not discussing the Internet not only as a mechanism for selling printed works but as a medium in itself for digital publishing. After all, the very premise of my visit was to review the museum not in print but online, by blogging. Maybe I missed it, but where was the discussion of blogging as one of the most modern innovations in audience creation? Anyone out there? Judging from the list of subscribers on my admin site, it would seem there are thousands. In the aggregate, probably hundreds of millions. It’s a brave new world. But I suspect it may not be long before AWM addresses this phenomenon.

Just beyond this area is a section where you can sit at an old-fashioned typewriter and play. The staff each day places sheets of paper in a tray with the opening lines or fragments of famous quotes. Your job: start pecking away to fill in the blanks with your own thoughts about how the quote should end. For writers like me who are almost preternaturally oriented to the computer screen, it is slightly disconcerting to hit keys that sometimes skip, but the experience is indisputably tactile, though arguably less so than perhaps using a quill pen. In any event, there is a wall with clips. You are invited to hang up your work when you are done. I did not get around to asking what the staff does with these at the end of each day. Maybe you should ask when you visit.

I hope you are more dexterously agile than I appear to be with one other exhibit that allows you to move any of a number of drifting images across a screen for a surprise exploration of an individual writer’s work. One of several lines of inquiry allows you to hear a short oral reading, but I had trouble triggering that feature because my index finger seemed not to hit the precise part of that line that activated the recording, at least not on the first try. I found myself a little frustrated, but a generation that has become adept at using its thumbs to tap out smartphone messages may be more adept in this respect. I was never very skilled with video games, either. We all have our limitations.

There are other features, including one on Jack Kerouac that includes the “scroll manuscript” he pasted together for On the Road, and a room on Chicago writers, since the museum lives here. I am sure there will be more in the future. The museum leaders appear to have built out their infrastructure of sponsors and board members, and if you’d like to know more, you can visit the website. That is not my mission here. As an active American writer, I hope I’m offering you reasons to visit the museum itself.


Jim Schwab

A Century of Midwest Literature

Robert Loerzel, immediate past president of SMA, helps introduce the day's events. He was preceded by current SMA president Meg Tebo.

Robert Loerzel, immediate past president of SMA, helps introduce the day’s events. He was preceded by current SMA president Meg Tebo.

Yesterday (May 2), a modest crowd celebrated 100 years of the Society of Midland Authors with speakers, panel discussions, and readings of authors past at the end of Society of Midland Authors Week, as declared by the Chicago City Council. Unfortunately, the event had to compete with the National Football League (NFL) draft ceremonies just a couple of blocks away in Grant Park, a contingency not foreseen when it was originally planned. While the NFL undoubtedly generates a stupendous sum of revenue even in the process of tagging star college players for professional opportunities, I would humbly argue that the literature of those celebrated at the University Center conference facility on State St. has done more to help define Chicago’s image than football ever will. Professional football shouts its presence from the skyboxes of Soldier Field. The novels, poems, and nonfiction narratives of Chicago and Midwestern writers insinuate their way into our consciousness slowly but pervasively and persuasively, like rainwater percolating into soil. Mind you, I do not dislike sports and spent Friday afternoon at a Wrigley Field rooftop party. But my understanding of real life was never altered nearly so much by a football game as by a really good book. And a few of those books were even about major sports figures.

With that in mind, I am going to divide this article into two parts. In the first, I will describe the centennial itself, which was preceded the night before by SMA’s annual book awards banquet at the Cliff Dwellers Club, which has long offered a home for many literary events, especially including those of SMA. In the second, I will describe my own small role in helping kick off the centennial as the first reader of a past author, poet Vachel Lindsay. I deliberately, several months earlier, asked the rest of SMA’s board of directors to “send me to Heaven” by letting me perform Lindsay’s art. They accommodated me, and I was grateful. The effort was part of a segment of the program in which past presidents of the society chose past SMA members and Midwestern authors whose works they would read, at short intervals between the invited speakers.

The Program

Many people save the best for last, but the best may have come first in some ways. That is saying a good deal because the program lasted from 10 a.m. until nearly 5 p.m.

The Gettysburg panel in action.

The Gettysburg panel in action: From left, Peck, Burke, and Knorowski.

Carla Knorowski, CEO of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, in Springfield, Illinois, led the first panel discussion by describing her work as the editor of Gettysburg Replies: The World Responds to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The foundation asked potential contributors to write essays of 272 words, the precise length of the manuscript of the famous speech that is on display in the Lincoln Library. Their essays could discuss Lincoln, the Civil War, or any other aspect of the speech’s meaning that touched their souls, as long as they matched Lincoln’s brevity. The library further challenged them to submit their work in longhand, though surely many used the word count features of their computers to guarantee the length before committing their prose to cursive writing. But many found the cursive exercise humbling in an era in which such skills have been lost to many in the younger generation. Lincoln had no such advantage except that he chose the length, which established his unique ability to say so much in so few words. Lincoln was, the panelists said, a Midwestern literary genius in his own right. In the end, Knorowski and her team at the foundation had to choose the best 100 of more than 1,000 submitted essays, some of which arrived as poems, most as essays, and which included as authors every living ex-president, one Holocaust survivor, and numerous others whose observations are well worth the price of the book, which was on sale in the back of the hall.

After her opening presentation, Knorowski was followed by two of those essayists, Chicago Alderman Edward Burke, an author in his own right, who spoke later of Chicago’s storied literary history, and Graham A. Peck, associate professor of history at St. Xavier University in Chicago. Burke noted the political machinations of the Republican convention in the Wigwam in Chicago in May 1860 that made it possible to nominate a lesser known regional leader, Lincoln, in the face of strong national support for William Seward of New York. Without those machinations, of course, the nation would never have elected Lincoln nor grown to respect and love this unique political figure. Peck, on the other hand, noted from his essay that “wisdom, restraint, and self-sacrifice were in characteristically short supply” in Lincoln’s time, but that the true reason for celebrating Lincoln’s words are “with us still: the tentative, incomplete, and unrealized human commitment to freedom, which binds us equally profoundly today, and calls out insistently, everywhere, for a new birth in service of human dignity.”

Haki Madhubuti, who was also founder of Third World Press.

Haki Madhubuti, who was also founder of Third World Press.

Such comments raise the question of exactly how we perceive that commitment in 2015. If a later presentation by 73-year-old poet Haki Madhubuti seemed at times halting, at times even stumbling, there was no doubt he was speaking with conviction and concern about the fate of young African-Americans amid the turmoil of recent events, notably the very recent controversy over the death of Freddie Gray in the custody of the Baltimore police. Asked if he had any hope after his seemingly grim presentation of the state of the black community, Madhubuti stated forthrightly that he saw it in young people of all races who had not been corrupted by the racism of America’s past.

Rounding out the morning was Rick Kogan, journalist and SMA member, who recounted much of the colorful history of Chicago literature and journalism, and said of the future of the written word, “I am hopeful but scared at the same time.”

In addition to the oration of Ald. Burke, the afternoon consisted of three panels involving reporters (Steve Bogira and Jonathan Eig), children’s authors (Blue Balliett and Ilene Cooper), and novelists Christine Sneed, Carol Anshaw, and Rosellen Brown. But surely, due to a conflict that took me to Chuck E. Cheese for a granddaughter’s fifth birthday, I missed the treat of the day. On my way out, I personally excused myself to Dr. Martin Marty, a long-time professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago, and the prolific author of at least 40 books (but who’s counting?), some of which have won literary awards. I quietly explained my circumstance as he sat in the back of the room, awaiting his turn, and with typical gracious humility as a fellow grandfather, he assured me the birthday was more important. So I asked him later what he had spoken about, and I got this third-person response, which made me laugh hard enough that I have decided to reproduce it in its entirety, with his permission:

Martin Marty, long-time member of the Society and happy possessor of a “lifetime” achievement award, used his twenty-one minutes to introduce readers to a non-existent figure, Franz Bibfeldt. He is available, amply, by the Google route; there are thousands of references to him, and he has many devotees around the world, despite his handicap: he doesn’t exist. Marty explained his light-hearted approach to demonstrate how the world of academic theology does not always take itself too seriously.

Bibfeldt was an invention of Marty in 1951, on the eve of his graduation from theological school and preparation to enter Christian ministry. It was a satire on eccentrics and eccentricities in “the system,” but when the hoax was exposed, not all of the exposed took kindly to it, and they wanted Marty punished. He had been scheduled to his first call to London, and that was canceled. The seminary dean had to follow disciplines, but Marty appealed to the seminary President, a kindly soul who said that instead of London MEM would be assigned to assist a senior minister of note, to be his mentor. It turned out to be Grace Lutheran in River Forest, whose call stipulated that the pastor assistant had to work on a doctorate. That is how, after a couple of years, Marty wound up at the University of Chicago to which, after ten years in pastoral ministry, he returned for a 35-year teaching career. Marty claimed to have made good on his observation that this non-existent person had greater influence on his career than anyone else.

Franz Bibfeldt? Many articles online detail his theology and fame. In a world where too many theologians and other scholars take themselves too seriously, and define things too sharply, Bibfeldt wanted to please everyone. Some would call him “wishy-washy,” but Marty & Co. treat him as someone who agreed with everyone. He knew the famous book by philosopher Soren Kiekegaard; it was called Either/Or. Bibfeldt wrote Both/And, and when criticism came, he wrote Either/Or and/or Both/And.

The book The Unrelieved Paradox has just come out in a second edition from Eerdmans. The final essay in the new edition was by Jean-Luc Marion, a fan of Bibfeldt, who flew from the Sorbonne to Chicago and back again, to deliver the annual Bibfeldt Lecture, held, of course, on April Fool’s Day.

All of which serves appropriately to prove Lincoln’s alleged observation that God must have had a sense of humor.

Kindly submitted in earnest honesty,

Jim Schwab

The Readings

Several of us throughout the day provided readings of former Midland Authors. As I noted above, I would have begged for the honor of presenting SMA founding father Vachel Lindsay, but I did not have to. The rest of the board and officers agreed almost as fast as I offered. I would also note, before going further, that SMA had founding mothers as well, among them Harriet Monroe and Edna Ferber. The list of those who saw fit to found this organization in 1915 is virtually a Who’s Who of Midwestern literary lights of the time.

But Vachel is a particular challenge for a modern presenter. A forerunner of today’s performance poets, his work was rhythmic, often accompanied by musical instruments, and so highly susceptible to public presentation that Lindsay became known for his “Poems for Bread,” which involved his bartering a reading of his work to some farm family in Illinois in exchange for a bed for the night and breakfast in the morning. His work was so close to the working-class fiber of the Midwest that long-time Socialist leader and presidential candidate Eugene Debs was a big fan. How do I know? Bernard Brommel, former SMA president and author, and long-time professor of speech and communications at Northeastern Illinois University, who wrote a book about Debs, told me so.

So how to get this right? I chose two poems by Lindsay, short enough to stay within my allotted five minutes while providing sharply contrasting views of the influence of religion in his life and career. First was “The Unpardonable Sin,” which I used as prelude to a blog post last fall. It is an angry anti-war poem written in the midst of World War One. Second was a celebratory poem, “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,” meant to honor the founder of the Salvation Army after his death. The first could simply be recited, but required entering into the mood of its creation. The second took a little more: a search of the Internet to find renditions of “The Blood of the Lamb,” the tune to which it was set, to get the rhythm and tone right. Soon enough, I discovered a podcast of a recording of the song by none other than Woody Guthrie, in many ways a contemporary of Lindsay. That gave me the best possible sense of the underlying performance style that I could acquire.


That said, the second poem is designed for musical accompaniment by banjos, flute, and tambourines. I had none of these available for this modest performance, so I asked the audience to clap in rhythm when I raised my arms, and to stop when I lowered them for the softer stanzas. I am pleased to say that they accommodated me warmly, including Ald. Burke.

With that in mind, I provide links below to the two poems in their entirety for the edification and enjoyment of this blog’s readers. I enjoyed myself thoroughly; I hope you will too.

The Unpardonable Sin

General William Booth Enters into Heaven

Lindsay’s work is available in various reprinted editions, some of which I have read in their entirety. I acquired my Vachel Lindsay addiction in a high school creative writing class in the late 1960s. I have never submitted to rehab for this happy addiction, so rehab has done nothing for me.

P.S.: If this article inspires you to support the Society of Midland Authors, their website allows you to buy some great swag in the form of shirts, keychains, mugs, and tote bags. And you thought I was above this sort of appeal? 🙂

Jim Schwab

In the Name of God

This is the sin against the Holy Ghost: – To speak of bloody power as right divine,
And call on God to guard each vile chief’s house,
And for such chiefs, turn men to wolves and swine:-

To go forth killing in White Mercy’s name,
Making the trenches stink with spattered brains,
Tearing the nerves and arteries apart,
Sowing with flesh the unreaped golden plains.

In any Church’s name, to sack fair towns,
And turn each home into a screaming sty,
To make the little children fugitive,
And have their mothers for a quick death cry,-

This is the sin against the Holy Ghost:
This is the sin no purging can atone:-
To send forth rapine in the name of Christ:-
To set the face, and make the heart a stone.

Vachel Lindsay


Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay, one of the founders in 1915 of the Society of Midland Authors ,with which I have long been involved, penned this poem, “The Unpardonable Sin,” in the midst of World War I, as a screed against the presumption of those who would claim to be committing murder and mayhem on behalf of Almighty God. It has become a classic because it states the obvious so simply while confronting a tendency that has been all too prevalent in human history—the quest to justify one’s own cruelty in the name of God.

I doubt that this poem will have any influence on the leaders or followers of Islamic State, if they even are familiar with it. For starters, it is posed primarily as a challenge to Christians who would justify war in the name of Christ. Nonetheless, I would maintain that, despite its context amid a war that tore Europe apart, it has more universal meaning that condemns any attempt to justify war in the name of a deity, no matter the faith involved.

This is not the subject matter I have most typically addressed in this blog, but I was appalled, though not surprised, to read this week that Islamic State, in an English-language e-zine called Dabiq, actually stated in blunt terms that it has a right to enslave and sexually abuse captured Yazidi women whose husbands ISIS has killed or taken prisoner, on the grounds that “even cross-worshiping Christians for ages considered them devil worshipers and Satanists.” It goes on to note that the women were divided among Islamic State fighters, some of whom sold them into slavery. And all of this is supposedly endorsed by the Koran. One could go on with the grim details, but the fundamental picture seems obvious.

Once we have deemed another group of people subhuman because of their differences in belief, or race, or ethnicity, or whatever excuse we have, their feelings matter not a whit because Allah, or God, has given us permission to treat them as mere chattel or to kill them outright. In cases of what we now euphemistically call “ethnic cleansing,” God has supposedly given us permission to wipe them off the face of the earth.

The whole idea behind this makes many, if not most, of us recoil in moral revulsion, but we need to do more than that. We need to come to grips with the fundamental illogic that makes parts of the human race function in this way. There is an essential arrogance behind all this that cannot be ignored, nor can it be ascribed solely to one radical group or one religion. Christianity has too much to answer for in its own history to assume such a stance. It was only 150 years ago, as the Civil War was winding to a close, that many clergy in southern churches in the U.S. still found it possible to use Holy Scripture to justify slavery. Their “unpardonable sin,” in Vachel Lindsay’s phrasing, was to provide cover for an entire society that was racist to its core and used perverse religious logic in many cases to excuse unspeakable cruelty. There is a scene in the movie Twelve Years a Slave, based on the Simon Northup book in the 1850s, in which the sadistic slave owner to whom Northup has been sold stands in front of his slaves with a Bible and reads from Proverbs , “The servant who does not serve his master will suffer many lashes.” He proceeds to note, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, that “many lashes may mean 40, or 100, or 150. This is holy scripture.” The fact that his slaves are not permitted to learn to read this scripture on their own to find the context from which their cruel owner has extracted this gem is more than ironic. It was a deliberate element of a system of subjugation.

So now we have ISIS resurrecting all the worst tendencies of every religion of every time in justifying the subjugation of other human beings, at a time when intelligent human beings have been hoping and praying that such notions have become a thing of the past. Sadly, that appears not yet to be the case; we have a long struggle ahead of us to expunge such logic from the human race once and for all. Too many people are still hanging on to too many prejudices and looking for justifications of one sort or another. And the most unpardonable of all, as Lindsay suggested, are those that justify their hatreds in the name of the Creator.

What lies at the core of this problem? I once heard Dr. Martin Marty, the theologian and long-time professor in the University of Chicago Divinity School, quote someone—I cannot remember whom—as stating that “a fanatic is someone who is determined to do for the Lord what the Lord would surely do for himself if only he were in full possession of the facts.” As absurd as that notion sounds on its face, it is all too real as human motivation. Somehow, we get it into our heads that a God whom Christians, Jews, and Muslims all describe as omnipotent, omniscient, and loving nonetheless needs the intervention of humans to solve problems that He has failed to perceive and remedy. And if this God is not taking care of business, well, then, it is up to us to do it for him. It is as if we are rushing to defend the honor of a helpless lady rather than worshiping a force far greater than ourselves. Here, God, let me help you by destroying these infidels.

Except that those “infidels,” however defined, are fellow human beings. And in order to get to the idea that these fellow human beings are lesser creatures who need to be slaughtered, enslaved, raped, or maimed, we have to cultivate the notion that the same God who created them and the entire universe somehow passionately hates a part of his creation so badly that he needs our help in getting rid of them.

I don’t care what passages out of the Bible, the Koran, or any other text some fanatic can extract or twist to construct this logic. If you believe in a deity who created the universe, that logic is an insult to the Almighty. And we need to grow up and accept the fact that it is all too easy to manipulate scriptural passages in isolation as justification for our own moral shortcomings. God does not hate the humans He created. He may very often be disappointed in their utter failure to achieve their own high moral potential, but what He does about that is his business, not ours. It is not our right to kill, injure, or enslave based on any differences among us.

There remains the problem of what to do about the people who insist on inflicting such injury on other people. When our own daughters were growing up, I did not endorse or employ corporal punishment because I do not think it is an appropriate remedy and certainly not the best. That said, I had no hesitation about using physical restraint to prevent them or their friends from doing harm to themselves or each other. I once gang-tackled one of our daughters in our living room to stop her from running away when she did not want to confront a serious issue in her life.

I think the same principle applies in both domestic and international situations where violence threatens to dominate people’s lives. Police are allowed to use force to prevent violence, for the same reason. None of this is because God wants us to hurt someone, but because there are times when we need to prevent such harm. The challenge in facing an insurgency like that led by Islamic State is that it inherently involves such complicated scenarios that may produce collateral damage. It is nearly impossible to find surgically sterile solutions; every option seems to leave blood on our hands. Even inaction, as President Barack Obama, like his predecessors, has learned on the job, can leave blood on our hands. There are few perfect solutions. But at least we can avoid the unpardonable sin of presuming that what we are doing is in the name of God. Far better to settle for the more humble proposition that, however imperfectly, we are simply seeking to reduce the level of pain in the world, and ideally to increase the volume of love and mutual respect. That is a goal that will ennoble any human being, no matter what faith he or she professes.


Jim Schwab


I have a team of friends and acquaintances whom I have put to work for the moment. All are experts on one or more aspects of floodplain management and disaster recovery. They all volunteered for the job because they care about those subjects deeply. I also regard them as a bit of a personal cheering squad, although their real job is to look at what I am proposing to write and give it the evil eye. I have asked them to review my draft outline for a book for which I am currently developing a proposal for a publisher. The topic is the big Midwest floods of 1993 and 2008. Already, they are responding by questioning my choice of an opening chapter, suggesting points I missed, and offering other advice. All that advice probably contains some really good ideas that will ultimately help me write a better book.

People think writing is a solitary act. It certainly can be. But it is not necessarily the perfect occupation for introverts, at least not the types of insecure, amateur writers who protect their manuscripts from criticism. I want to make clear, however, that I am not equating introversion with that particular brand of immaturity. I know plenty of people with tendencies toward introversion who are capable of accepting and even welcoming criticism, and some extroverts who are remarkably thin-skinned. My real point is that I deliberately recruited my critics to provide me with feedback on my outline, and later, I hope, the actual manuscript, by reaching out to them without fear of the critiques they may provide. I trust their sincerity, and I trust my own ability to discriminate between the various pieces of advice they will offer to determine which are useful and which are not.

One reason is that I do not intend to produce a scholarly work, although there will be scholarship in much of the research. It will not be a technical work, though there will be some technical explanations rendered, I hope, in plain English. It will be a book that requires the skill to construct a narrative that attracts readers who might not otherwise indulge in a book about floods. I hope to produce something that will be both educational and fun and fascinating to read. But I also want a book that is meticulous and accurate to a fault. They can help me with that, at the same time that they all know that I am attempting something they might find very hard, if not impossible, to do—mixing technical expertise with solid narrative story telling. Beneath all the mud and the flood waters lies one hell of a story about the human race. And I regard unearthing that as my forte.

A long-time lawyer friend, Steve Kerschner, who died much too young just over seven years ago from lung cancer, once asked me how such a compulsive extrovert as I seemed to be could be an author who had produced two substantial books in addition to numerous articles. Steve claimed to be an introvert, though when he talked a blue streak on a subject that excited him, he could have fooled me. But sometimes that tendency is the perfect foil for an introspective personality. Steve was an attorney diverted from theology, whose shelves were crammed with books on philosophy by the likes of Kant, Descartes, and Nietzsche. He was genuinely puzzled because I struck him as a paradox. All that work on a 500-page book on the environmental justice movement must have kept me pinned to my computer for hundreds of hours, and how could any extrovert stand to sit there working alone for so long? Steve was not asking out of idle curiosity. He wanted to understand.

Have you ever looked at the appendix at the back of Deeper Shades of Green? I asked him. He said he had not, so I showed him. It listed every person I had interviewed for the book, more than 300 of them, in alphabetical order and with any organizational affiliation that was relevant. There’s your answer, I told Steve: I networked relentlessly. After getting to know one person who might be useful to the story, I would learn from them of five others worth talking to, and I would be down the street or across town finding them, getting their perspectives to round out the story. Sometimes it was almost too much information, and not everyone who helped could get recognized in the narrative for his or her contribution. Sometimes, as Hemingway famously said, you must kill your darlings. He was referring to a writer’s tendency to protect those precious lines or paragraphs that seem so clever that you don’t want to excise them from the manuscript, even if you are not already blind to the ways that they hurt your story. For the extroverted writer who interviews everyone who fails to escape his attention, it can also be a matter of realizing that, no matter how fascinating the interview may have been, the person may not fit neatly into your narrative. You can’t include everyone, but you can learn from them all, and most will somehow enrich your perspective, sometimes in ways you don’t immediately recognize.

And so it is, for this extroverted journalist and author, in recruiting a team of advisers to dissect my plans for this new book, a project I have not even started, for which I have not even completed a full proposal or acquired a publishing contract, though I am sure I will. There is no reason to fear input, no reason to be offended if someone is not overly impressed by my initial conception of what the project should be. If I am capable of producing a quality book at all, then I should be able to sort through all their suggestions, assessments, and objections, even the ones that contradict each other, decide objectively which ones are most useful for advancing my project, and set to work incorporating those ideas into the book, and making them my own.

Now, who was that English writer who said no man is an island?


Jim Schwab

A Universe of Imagination

Literary daring comes in many forms. Some authors attempt to redraw the boundaries of traditional genre. Others try daring new themes that have previously been verboten in the society of their time, and though some gain lasting fame in this way, others find that, over time, what was once daring becomes banal. The discussion or destruction of sexual taboos, for instance, often goes this route unless the work that pushed those boundaries is noteworthy for some more fundamental achievement. A few, like Ernest Hemingway, change the stylistic preferences of a generation, showing in his case how a few words in a very short sentence can speak volumes.

One year ago, a legend of modern American fiction died. I grew up with that legend, still in his prime as I was barely learning my craft in high school and beyond. Ray Bradbury was 91, and his work had spanned most of a century, though the bulk of it emerged from his fertile imagination in the space of a quarter-century after World War II. He reshaped American fiction in his own way, not through stylistic finesse, though his style was among the best, and not by reinventing literary forms, though he used them very well, but by demonstrating the power of the human imagination to expand and alter our perceptions of reality. He took us to distant worlds to hold a powerful mirror to the one in which we already live. Despite the tendency in many quarters over many years to pigeonhole him as a science fiction writer, one can say of him in that regard something like what was said (by the  New York Times) of Walter Van Tilburg Clark with regard to The Ox-Bow Incident: “[It] bears about the same relation to an ordinary Western that The Maltese Falcon does to a hack detective story.”

Why am I writing about Bradbury now? Admittedly, the daily news media wrote what it needed to write about Bradbury within 48 hours of his death and moved on. Personally, when Bradbury died, I was at the front end of a busy six-day stay in Hawaii, at the invitation of the University of Hawaii’s National Disaster Preparedness Training Center to speak at a conference and guest lecture. More importantly, I see no need for this blog to hurry anything into print. The world is not waiting breathlessly to hear what I have to say. That said, I would rather say something important in due time than to say something trivial quickly.

I did not absorb the story fully until I returned and had the chance to read the Chicago Tribune. Bradbury, after all, was a local boy made good, born in Waukegan, Illinois, who moved to Los Angeles with his family in his teens. The Depression had sent his father, a utility worker, to the West Coast in search of work. Almost 80 years later, Bradbury’s death was the top headline, and his story filled an entire inside page. Waukegan Main Street is planning a Bradbury museum in part of the now-shuttered Carnegie library that Bradbury had deemed a second home in his youth. If Salinas, California, can have its Steinbeck Center, a wonderful facility I visited in late April, then Waukegan shall have its Bradbury museum.

And there is no better home than the old Carnegie library. Books were the center of Bradbury’s life and fueled his imagination; they expanded his world far beyond Waukegan, but his literary imagination ultimately brought him back in such classic works as Dandelion Wine. For Bradbury, as for many great writers, childhood was a nearly inexhaustible mine of material from which he sculpted his themes and refined his fiction.

I have had the honor of judging two books detailing Bradbury’s life from two varying perspectives. For several years, since stepping down as the past president of the Society of Midland Authors, I have been tapped for service as one of three judges on the biography panel for the annual SMA book awards. The awards are for authors anywhere in 12 Midwestern states who excel in any of six categories.  In 2006, we awarded the biography prize to Sam Weller, a professor who teaches creative writing at Columbia College in downtown Chicago. Earlier this year, one entry among the 2011 books was Becoming Ray Bradbury, by Jonathan R. Eller, an English professor at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, and the cofounder there of the Center for Bradbury Studies. This latter book, which did not win a prize, is nonetheless well worth reading for Bradbury fans because its tack is to examine the evolution of Bradbury’s style and thematic focus as a writer, at least up to the time of his emergence as a major author with Fahrenheit 451 and a subsequent offer from film maker John Huston to write the screenplay for Moby-Dick. That last act more than established Bradbury’s versatility. It is apparent that Eller is planning to continue the story of Bradbury’s evolution in future volumes moving through the remainder of his career.

But by far the better book is The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury. Weller spent considerable time with the author, who entrusted him with producing an authorized but honest biography that displays Bradbury with both warts and halos. The warts in Bradbury’s case are largely ordinary peccadilloes and some bad choices that have relatively little to do with his literary productivity. Far more interesting are the ideas that he induced millions of the rest of us to ponder. Big ideas in many cases, but even the smaller ideas had this way of nestling into your brain and making you see something differently. And that was Bradbury’s obsession in life—to change the lens through which the rest of us viewed the universe around us.

One of his earliest big ideas surfaced in The Martian Chronicles. In this book, Bradbury envisions humans crossing space to settle on the very foreign world of Mars, where they encounter an ancient and alien but intelligent race whose ways they cannot understand. The inevitable result is a clash of cultures in which only the intruders can survive. The Martians are extinguished, but back on Earth so are the humans, where thermonuclear war finally takes its toll as the last interplanetary nomads make their trek to a new home, unable to return.

Lest readers think this big idea too pedestrian, too predictable, think about when The Martian Chronicles was published—in 1950, at the height of American paranoia and self-congratulation, the two going hand in hand with World War II still close in the rear-view mirror, a horde of totalitarian Communists invading South Korea, and the Cold War producing fears of nuclear annihilation. The idea that dominant human cultures often despoil others with which they come in contact was not exactly what most wanted to hear, yet the book found an audience and made an impact that continues to be felt to this day because its message cuts close to the bone.

On one hand, there are vivid reminders from the past. For Americans, most of whom would prefer to be left in ignorance on this point, there is the history of our fiftieth state, Hawaii. Essentially disconnected from the rest of the world until 1776, it was encountered (let’s not say “discovered”) by Captain James Cook in the same year that Americans were launching a revolution against the British Empire. Cook died at the hands of the Hawaiians as the result of serious cultural misunderstandings, to put it mildly, some of which continue to be disputed. Did Hawaiians actually think Cook was Lono, the moon god? You can read the disputation in How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, for Example, in which Marshal Sahlins, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, takes issue with Sri Lankan Gananath Obeyesekere’s The Apotheosis of Captain Cook, which argues that the Hawaiians were too rational to have thought any such thing. Sahlins’s counterargument, which strikes me as valid, is that the Hawaiians were rational within the context of their own vision of the world.

Both books came long after Bradbury’s portrayal of life on Mars, but they deal with the same disturbing question: the clash of cultures that leads to the end of one way of life and the triumph of another. One wonders at times whether this is the only way in which we can get to know each other on this planet or any other. Some might argue that a certain amount of creative destruction, like that which many economists advocate, is necessary for progress. Certainly, in this case, Hawaiians rapidly progressed in adapting to new circumstances before being overwhelmed with the power and influence of the United States. It is also hard to argue that life was paradise for the natives before Westerners arrived. In fact, Hawaiians fought each other fiercely and frequently, and only stopped when one of them—Kamehameha—knocked enough heads together, aided by the acquisition of modern weaponry, to put an end to the divisiveness forever. One can get much of the flavor of Hawaii’s violent transition to modernity by reading The Warrior King: Hawaii’s Kamehameha the Great, the often gory biography by Richard Tregaskis of this physically powerful man who ultimately united the Hawaiian islands. (Tregaskis, for the record, has that element of redundancy in his descriptions that betrays a hack writer, but on the other hand, there are few other biographies of Kamehameha.)

That we seem not to learn from all this is evident from the rash of cultural and political missteps that clearly accompanied the U.S. invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush. The dismissive arrogance of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld toward critics as the conflict progressed would be almost comically clichéd if it had not produced such tragic consequences. Just when you think the human race is starting to mature just a little, we are pulled back to the theme of The Martian Chronicles, which doesn’t look so trite after all. Quite the contrary. Bradbury shaped the outlook of a new generation of artists, most notably James Cameron in the film Avatar, which features human military and economic exploitation of a remote planet rich in exotic resources prized on commodities markets. In Avatar, the “indigenous” become expendable until they rise up in revolt. One has to be rather obtuse to miss the artistic connection between Bradbury and Cameron. The plot may differ, but the underlying theme is fundamental. Humans with advanced technology but limited cultural understanding, or more importantly with a cramped understanding of their own motives in life, are like bulls in a china shop. Nothing is safe that lies in their path.

Paranoia—a consuming fear of the alien or unknown—often pairs easily with hatred. Each one fuels the other. Bradbury throughout his life, but particularly early in his life, displayed a profound and progressive concern for racial injustice. It is not hard to connect the themes in The Martian Chronicles with Bradbury’s observation in Weller’s book that “even if we are not aware of them, we all have our hidden prejudices.” No one presented these quite so eloquently as Bradbury in his short story, “The Big Black and White Game,” featuring two baseball teams of opposite race playing each other. The story arrived on the literary scene just a couple of years before Jackie Robinson was to make his entrance into the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Bradbury was 25 when the story was published, a young author with a very fresh new viewpoint who nonetheless had to labor very hard in the vineyards before he found himself under the bright lights with a best seller. On a positive note, Bradbury must have been cheered with much of the racial progress of the last half-century, despite its occasional roller-coaster features. And he certainly became a bigger fan of the national space program than The Martian Chronicles alone might have suggested. Of course, there is no intelligent life on Mars to worry about. Those alien cultures, in reality, are all on our own planet and always have been. We must learn to live with ourselves.

It did not take too many years for the bright lights to find Bradbury, for his imagination was prolific and his work ethic rock solid. By 1953, just 33 years old, he launched what surely is his most enduring literary legacy, born of the book-burning, blacklisting, paranoid legacy of the McCarthy era—Fahrenheit 451. When I was in college, back in the turbulent era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, discovering this book about a future society in which books were burned as contraband was a delicious experience that opened insights in ways that still resonate for me today. I regard this as Bradbury’s masterpiece, in large part because of the way in which he slowly but surely reveals Montag’s evolution from a naïve fireman, in a world where homes are fireproof but books are deemed dangerously subversive, to a man with growing doubts about his mission in life and about the intellectually anesthetized society around him. There is nothing wrong with an inquiring mind, Bradbury seemed to be telling me, even if everyone around you wants you to accept the status quo. I link that in my own mind with my favorite quote from Studs Terkel, who always insisted that his epitaph would be, “Curiosity did not kill this cat.”

But it has killed many people in many places. We need look no farther in recent times than North Korea, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and China, or even much of Latin America before the wave of democratization replaced most military juntas. If we wish to make ourselves uncomfortable, we can even look inside the U.S., at the South before integration, at much of the racist reaction to the tragedy of 9/11, and other efforts to stifle intellectual, cultural, and religious diversity, to know that the repressive instinct remains strong within us. We are our own worst enemies in resisting the liberation of the mind, or to quote Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

When we insist on seeing the world the way we want to see it, we tend to construct a hall of mirrors that eventually betrays us.

But let us not concentrate on cursing the darkness. There remains Montag, stumbling through the darkness, almost accidentally finding the light through that spark of humanity that will not be suppressed, asking questions, eventually the right questions, and finding his way to the Book People. Welcome to the light. And thanks, Ray. We owe you a lot.

Jim Schwab



Preserving a Tradition


On Tuesday evening, May 14, I had the special pleasure of receiving an award from the Society of Midland Authors. Every year in May, the Society holds a banquet in Chicago at which it bestows its annual book awards in six categories—adult fiction and

nonfiction, juvenile fiction and nonfiction, poetry, and biography. The awards have gone to some highly decorated authors and to some who have never received an award before, and to many who never received one again. But always, the awards recognize the best that Midwestern literature had to offer in the prior year. I have served many times over the past 20 years as a judge for those awards, in either adult nonfiction or biography, and I have had the privilege of announcing the award a few times. I have bestowed the award on people like Garry Wills (James Madison) and Kathleen Norris (Dakota: A Spiritual Geography).

In addition to the book awards, the Society has incorporated into its ceremonies an award for literary criticism by absorbing it from the now defunct Friends of Literature. And, when the board feels there is a deserving recipient, it also provides a Distinguished Service Award to someone members feel has made significant contributions to the organization. As was noted the other night, there have been stalwarts in the past—more than a few of them, it seems, because the Society in 2015 will celebrate its centennial. Established in 1915, benefiting in its earliest history from a honorary visit by William Butler Yeats, the Society’s founders and early members included the likes of Vachel Lindsay, Harriet Monroe, Sherwood Anderson, Edna Ferber, and Carl Sandburg. How do you beat that combination? The century that followed brought more luminaries—Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel, and Scott Turow, among them. I am sure I am missing many others, but you get the point. We counted among our membership the best of the Midwest, and they have often spoken to us, and speak to us still, at monthly programs and yearly banquets. As president of the Society, from 1997-1999, I once paired Scott Turow and Jacquelyn Mitchard for a program on “Hitting the Jackpot with Your First Book.” The Society hit the jackpot, too, with a splendidly lively program.

In the midst of this rarefied company, it is a bit humbling to get any award at all. But the board felt my time had come because I had served, at various times, as president, vice-president, membership secretary, treasurer, book judge, and board member, not to mention newsletter editor. It was pointed out that I gave the newsletter its current name, Literary License. That was not hard. The title came in one of those moments one suffers of instant illumination. Big deal: It happens to writers all the time, right? Well, not exactly. It happens after a writer lets his brain cogitate on a problem long enough that all the bad ideas drift to the bottom, like silt in the river, fertilizing and facilitating the one good idea that finally rises to the top.

And I guess that’s mostly why I got this honor. It’s not about me, at least not completely or even primarily. It’s about the inspiration and perspiration involved in wanting to see to it that a deserving organization that has long been an essential part of the Chicago and Midwestern cultural scene gets to last into a second century, to respond to new challenges. Because the Society is an organization into which writers with at least one published book “of literary merit” must be invited, it is precisely the type of organization that is capable of stumbling into irrelevance if its leadership allows the membership to age and mellow until no one can remember its heyday anymore. In the late 1990s, as membership secretary, I would hunt down new authors eligible to be invited, and bring dozens of nominations to each meeting of the board of directors for approval, to assure that the pipeline was full of new blood, and the organization stayed fresh and relevant, and it did and it has. That tradition of recruitment of those often less noticed has continued under other leadership for more than a decade since I served as president, and I don’t worry about it so much anymore. New members join every year.

Still, I can’t say as many responded to our invitations as I might have liked. As my late friend Timothy Unsworth once told me, “Jim, there’s a high nut factor in any group of artists.” I learned that first-hand one day when a prospective member contacted me. “Is it too late to join?” the person wanted to know. He had a letter of invitation I had sent him, but it had gotten lost in his mail pile until he had rediscovered it, two years later. I told him there was no statute of limitations on such an invitation. The guy joined. Years later, when we awarded the biography prize to Sam Weller, for The Bradbury Chronicles, he related a similar incident during his work with Ray Bradbury. At Bradbury’s home in Los Angeles one day, Welller stumbled upon a $200,000 royalty check buried in a mountain of papers. When he reported it to the author, Bradbury merely said, “I wondered where that was.” Some of our nuts are very prosperous. And a quirky joy to work with. I am simply proud to have had the opportunity to help such an organization survive.

As for my own service to SMA, some of it was simply a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In April 1999, as I was completing my term as president and contemplating a more relaxed role as a mere past president and board member, Tim Unsworth called to say that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Tim was the treasurer and wanted to know if I would be willing to take the job off his hands while he dealt with his medical challenges, which ultimately overcame him. He clearly felt I was the one he could trust to take over and do the job right, but it had not been what I was looking forward to.

On the other hand, how could I refuse?


Jim Schwab

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