Wooten’s Worldly Words: Don Wooten, "And Another Thing ..." Print
News/Features - Literature
Wednesday, 19 December 2007 02:37

The words "thoughtful" and "newspaper columnist" don't normally go together. Columnists can be many things - angry, or incisive, or crabby, or nostalgic, or funny, or cloying - but rarely do you find one who seems genuinely curious about the world around him, and who has many experiences through which to view it.

Don Wooten has, by his own count, written more than 1,100 columns for the Rock Island Argus and the Moline Dispatch, and he is nothing if not thoughtful. He begins one with the words "Vanum est vobis ante lucem surgere" and continues: "That Latin phrase from 50 years ago has been running through my mind lately. I don't know it's source; I have sometimes imagined it to be a friendly admonition from Cicero, or one of Tertullian's precepts for the early Christian Church." The column is about a three-month-old puppy.

Wooten's new book, And Another Thing ... , collects dozens of columns from the past twenty-plus years and divides them into 19 subject areas, ranging from Christmas to the weather to politics. None is as dull as those reductive labels, because Wooten's nature is to ponder.

In a section on aging, he finds an opportunity to fret about our cultural emphasis on sports, and he hits on an important point: "[W]e have institutionalized sports to such an extent that it overshadows almost everything else a growing person might do. ...

"We have made such a fetish of sports excellence that it can get a youngster's life out of balance. Think how many kids, admiring Michael Jordan, spend hours practicing layups and three-pointers, honing a skill that will ultimately prove meaningless.

"There is only one Michael Jordan. There are only a few hundred who can stay in the game with him. For the rest, it's time largely wasted."

The column, from 1998, isn't as curmudgeonly as that excerpt sounds. Wooten concludes with a truth that's simple but rarely articulated: "They're going to need something to sustain them when muscle turns to lard, when others have taken their place on the team ... ."

It's not that he can't be curmudgeonly. Wooten obviously has no use for popular music, downright dismissive in 1994: "If kids remain stuck on a loud, monotonous base [sic] line with words shouted over guitars amplified beyond distortion, it's rather akin to spending their lives looking at comic books, rather than learning to read. It's fun, on a simplistic level, but it's a dead end.

"The good stuff is in books without pictures and in music that admits of variety of form and expression."

There's a reasonable argument here - that children who only listen to rock music don't have a well-rounded education - but this is one of the few times in these columns that Wooten is closed-minded. He refuses to believe that there's any real value in pop music or comic books.

Wooten is, of course, a renaissance man - a former state legislator, founder and longtime leader of the Genesius Guild theatre organization, weatherman, radio host. All of those callings make appearances here, and they represent the book's strongest material. The section on the "Crazy Eight" - a group of Democratic legislators in the Illinois General Assembly in the 1970s - begs for a book all its own.

"After delaying an organizational vote for five weeks in early 1977," Wooten wrote in 2004, "we came within 30 minutes of taking over the Senate and forging a bipartisan chamber. That was one of the most wrenching experiences of my life and the Crazy Eight's high-water mark - but that, too, is a story to be told elsewhere." I'd love to read it.

That's just one example of the selection process yielding odd effects. The nature of any collection with such a wide scope is that the trivial and the important are ascribed equal weight.

For instance, Wooten seems unnaturally fixated on dandelions, with five columns devoted to the subject in this book. One begins, "It's been fully three years since I last wrote about dandelions, promising that it would be my final word on the subject," and the column that precedes it in the book (from four years earlier) follows the same template.

I'm all for lightness and variety, but Wooten has more to give than his battles with weeds. All of his columns offer surprises, but so many pieces sing - the section on his friendship with Ed Angerer is particularly vivid, because it's so personal - that the mundane subjects that bog the collection down feel like wasted opportunities.

Wooten is a good columnist not because he's like the rest of us, but because he's unique. Anybody can write about dandelions or dogs, but only Wooten can write about his dead brother, his time in the legislature, his quiet evenings with Angerer, and the process of transforming ancient plays into contemporary humor.