I spent a few days in Iowa City, my hometown. I did some research at the University of Iowa Library. Then I took long walks around town.
Nostalgia was laced with Zola-like naturalistic observations as I contemplated the monstrous greed of developers who have destroyed whole blocks of graceful old houses and replaced them with cheap apartment houses.
And that’s why you can’t go home again. It’s like having double vision: seeing everything twice through optometrists’ lenses.
At first it was blissful.
Iowa City is pleasantly deserted in May, because the students are gone, and you have the place to yourself . You do not have to stand in line for an American Gothic coffee at Java House. You nip up the hill to College Green Park to sip your coffee and read Barbara Pym’s An Unsuitable Attachment, which is suitable vacation reading, peopled by Pym’s trademark diffident observers: Ianthe Broome, a librarian, has “an unsuitable attachment” to a younger man; Sophia , a vicar’s wife, is obsessed with her cat, Faustina, and match-making; and Rupert Stonebird, an anthropologist, considers mating with Ianthe, who is more suitable, or Sophia’s sister Penelope, whom he calls”the pre-Raphaelite beat-nik.”
Growing up I sat on the swings at the park, and near the end of senior year I picnicked at the park with my future husband. It still feels like the sleepy Iowa City of my youth, except development has spoiled the old neighborhoods near the campus. New apartment buildings under construction now tower over the Unitarian Church on Iowa Avenue, and dwarf the old Carnegie library on College Street. The new public library, once a J. C. Penneys, has less charm, a central location but no parking. Still, it is open long hours every day, and serves as a community center. And–fun fact!–the library is home to the Westgate Collection of Original Children’s Book Art, most of which was collected and donated by Hazel Westgate, the eccentric children’s librarian from 1949-1988 who built an excellent collection of children’s literature.
After picking up a second coffee, because what is research without coffee?, I went down the hill to the University of Iowa Library. At a table near the window in the literature and language stacks, I arranged my crisp new notebook, British Library pen, backup hotel pen, and felt-tip pens for special notes. And in the dim lights triggered by movement sensors, I acquired a heap of books.
So many books, some great, some terrible. I quickly flashed back to grad school techniques and recalled the unscholarly habit of judging books by the title. Yes, why not? One needs a whimsical sorting system among so many unpromising dull books. Not surprisingly, Sarah Lindheim’s Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid’s Heroides, is clever and amusing; the title even echoes You’ve Got Mail, the entertaining Nora Ephron movie. Lindheim is such a smart, amusing writer that I can’t help but think it was deliberate. And the book is a fascinating analysis of Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of elegiac epistles written from mythological heroines to their lovers and husbands. On the other hand, I struck out with A Web of Fantasies: Gaze, Image, and Gender in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, by Patricia B. Slazman-Mitchell. It’s best to avoid books with “gender” in the title, I decided.
After taking notes, I did a lot of walking. I do recommend visiting Hickory Hill Park, 190 acres of woods, meadows, creek, etc. I used to know the park well, but they have bought more land, built more trails, and have deliberately revamped others so you go nowhere near the gap in the fence that led into Oakland Cemetery and was a shortcut home. The large open meadow is now confusingly planted with trees, while another open meadow (which I mistook for the old one) has that Andrew Wyeth look that makes you want to plop down in the sun. (I got sunburn.) A deer and I came face to face when I stumbled on a remote muddy trail, which perhaps was not even a human trail. Yes, I did get lost, but eventually found an exit that led me to Dodge Street. Wow, I need to start a five-miles-a-day walking regimen, because I could feel this in my legs! My husband said it was eight miles. Who knows?
Iowa City is also home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was named a UNESCO City of Books in 2008. The sidewalk on Iowa Ave is engraved wih plaques and quotes from famous writers. We were always vaguely proud of the Workshop, where Kurt Vonnegut, Gail Godwin, John Cheever, Frank Conroy, Marvin Bell, Marilynne Robinson, T. C. Boyle, Karen E. Bender, Margot Livesey, and many other brilliant writers have taught. But it’s not known for Iowa writers! The only Workshop alumna I can think of from Iowa is Elizabeth Evans. No, these geniuses come from New York, California, places like that. NOT FLYOVER STATES!
Iowa City has always been bookish, but now has trouble supporting bookstores, despite the UNESCO status. Prairie Lights, a two-story bookstore established in the late ’70s, is still magnificent, and has a stunning selection of new books and a good selection of classics, but the number of books seems slightly smaller than it used to be. Prairie Lights also sponsors a lot of readings, though fewer big names come through on tour these days. Mostly the readings are by Workshop writers now. Prairie Lights also sells the books at university events.
There are only a couple of other bookstores left in Iowa City. Around the block from Prairie Lights is Iowa Book, which used to be called Iowa Book and Supply (or Iowa Book and Crook). To say I was shocked that the store now has only a few shelves of books is an understatement. It always made most its money from t-shirts and sweatshirts, but now that is the entire business.
As for used bookstores, I am not a big fan of The Haunted Bookshop, where a cat once attacked me The bookstore clerks apologized, but as a longtime “cat mom” in a multi-cat household, I was shocked. This is not usual with cats. And, honestly, the condition of the books at The Haunted Bookshop is often barely “acceptable.” But Iowa City needs The Haunted Bookshop, whether I like the store or not, and perhaps students are less picky than I am..
There is a lot of food in Iowa City. The best food I found? The vegetarian sandwich at the University Library’s cafe. Honestly, I lived on those. But the pedestrian downtown is a center of restaurants and bars, so you won’t go hungry.
CAVEAT: Iowa City is larger than it used to be, and if you are a woman alone, do be careful. It’s hard to take Iowa City seriously as a city because it seems so quaint, but things change, and I was too casual in the evening. Iowa City has a homeless problem, or so I’d read in The Press Citizen, without taking it seriously. I scoffed, until I went to CVS at the Old Capitol Mall around 5 p.m., and had to thread myself through crowds of homeless men out of Dickens’s Oliver Twist. No, it sure wasn’t Little Dorrit or the Father of the Marshalsea. And I’m not anti-homeless., and I’m not a judge of homeless. as a bit like having double vision: looking at my hometown through different lenses provided by an optometrist. Is this clearer, or this?
WHAT I’M SAYING IS: PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR SURROUNDINGS. IF YOU FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE , LEAVE.
The soundest of advice to the me who has forgotten it!