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boots, iowa city, wikipedia

January 31, 2010

In college I studied writing, history, and literature, and as a beat reporter for The Daily Iowan had the chance to speak with and interview some pretty amazing people – Seymour Hersh and Sasha Frere-Jones, for example.  I even had the pleasure of spending 30 wonderful minutes on the phone with Pauly Shore.  Writing is a Big Deal at the University of Iowa, and esteemed writers and thinkers tend to find their way to that tiny Midwestern jewel more often than you’d ever expect.  It is not atypical for a literary tour itinerary to read: “New York, Boston, Iowa City, San Francisco,” with many of the writers stopping for a reading at one of the finest bookstores in the country, Prairie Lights.

Howard Zinn was scheduled to appear on campus one weeknight, but at the last minute – after the lecture hall was filled with teachers, students, alumni, locals – Zinn had to cancel.  His plane was stuck on the East Coast and he wouldn’t be able to make it.  A tentative date was scheduled for the following fall, which never quite came to fruition.  So when I read that he had passed away last week, I couldn’t help but think of the lost opportunity to hear this great man speak.  Zinn’s alternative histories and essays always struck me as such original thinking.  At my time in college, history and American Studies departments were really pushing to move away from teaching history just from the top down – from the perspective of kings and presidents, often only white males – and towards history from the perspective of the common man and woman and the downtrodden.  Zinn’s most well-known work, A People’s History of the United States, embodies that ethos completely.  Ironically, one of Zinn’s most famous moments might be from a scene in Good Will Hunting, where Matt Damon’s character states, “If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s ‘People’s History of the United States.’ That book will knock you on your ass.”

All the deaths last week of well-known writers are a reminder of just how important people like this are to our culture and society.  In the age of YouTube, blogging, Twitter, and mass media accessible in an instant online, it’s easy to overlook, or at least forget for awhile, the footprint these people make on us.  Wikipedia can sum up the history of the United States, but it won’t get you thinking about what that history means in any tangible way like Zinn’s book can.

Nos. 337: 1/31/2010



Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel —
only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable
jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects
not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of
psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him,
drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and
stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations
through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President
of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.

Nos. 338: 1/30/2010


Way too much coffee.  But if it weren’t for the coffee, I’d have no
identifiable personality whatsoever.

– David Letterman

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 31, 2010 2:30 pm

    I agree with you on the tangible being the best way. I don’t mind the new technology so much because I feel it has a place, but as for holding a book in your hands and diving into the words…nothing else can ever be quite like that. Wonderful thoughts on Howard Zinn and in your previous post I loved the song you picked.

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