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Feature

For the Love of Books: The Midwest Book Review Story

Three decades of a Madison, Wisconsin book review institution with social-activist roots
It was the summer of 1976 and Jim Cox was attending the regular Wednesday night meeting of the Madison Science Fiction Club at a State Street restaurant. The purpose of the group’s weekly get-togethers was to socialize with like-minded folks for whom reading fantasy and science fiction was more than a casual hobby.

“Into that night's gathering walked a good friend of mine by the name of Hank Luttrell,” recalls Cox. “Hank was a mail order book dealer specializing in comics, mysteries, and science fiction -- and whose ambition was to create his own bookstore (which he subsequently did: 20th Century Books is still doing business in Madison).

Hank came in with a copy of an expensive coffee-table book called The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue, a compilation of correspondences between late British historian Arnold J. Toynbee and the Japanese philosophy/educator Isadeu Ikeda. Knowing Cox was a history buff and well-versed in the writings of Toynbee, Lutrell asked him if he’d like to have the book for free. "Whose kneecaps do you want me to break?" Cox asked.

It turned out that all he really had to do was read the book and then go visit a new radio show that had started in Madison a few weeks earlier. It was WORT-FM -- a non-commercial, counter-culture, left-leaning community supported radio station.

“I was to go on a talk show with a fellow named John Ohliger and take three minutes to tell him and his audience what I thought of the book -- and I could then keep it for myself! I said to Hank: ‘Hand me the book and tell me where this radio thing is located.’"

The following Saturday morning Cox went down to the ugliest one-story cinder block building he had ever seen and was introduced to an older gent who looked like -– and was -- a liberal University of Wisconsin college professor. After Ohliger made his introductory remarks Cox began telling him and his listening audience about the Toynbee-Ikeda book.

“I was still going strong when John reached over and gently tapped me on the arm and said he had to wrap things up -- his 30 minute program was over! While John was signing off I sat there mentally upbraiding myself for the motor-mouth I had been and was prepared to apologize profusely for hogging his whole show.”

“John had a stack of books by his elbow. After we were off the air and before I could launch into my abject grovel -- he pushed that stack of books across the table to me and asked if I could look through these books and come back next week.”

Thus began Jim Cox’s career as a book reviewer.

Within three months Cox was hosting that radio show -- The Madison Review of Books –- and a couple of months later he expanded it to an hour (“Thirty minutes was just way to short!”). A few months after that, he added a second one-hour show specializing in science fiction – “The Sci-Fi & Fantasy Hour with James Andrew Cox.” (“I think I was born with an ego as big as that program title!”)

The aforementioned Professor Ohliger’s field was Adult Education and Life Long Learning, and he was also an ardent social activist. He had been one of the key people to establish WORT-FM as a commercial free "talk show" radio forum for public issues, and he started The Madison Review of Books as one of his experiments in adult education.

“He wanted to see what would happen if you put brand new books in the hands of ordinary folk -- cab drivers, housewives, students, social workers, janitors -- and then gave them a forum from which they could express their opinions and critiques to the community at large,” says Cox.

At this time in the 1970’s, book reviewing was and had always been an elitist operation of the New York/East Coast literati. Ohliger, the populist and leftist agitator that he was, wanted to break that stranglehold.

“So John started up his little radio show, got 15 of the major publishers to send him some books, and sent folks like Hank Luttrell out into the Madison community to recruit folks like me into sharing our views of what we were reading and what was being published.”

“I, along with a half-dozen others, banded together with John Ohliger and operated that little book review. I hosted the radio show and did most of the grunt work of publisher notification, book solicitation, and assigned reviewer follow-ups.”

Two years later Ohliger was working with still another group of citizen activists who wanted to insure a public access channel in the newly arriving television cable company that was wiring up Madison. Dragging Cox along to endless meetings in small non-air-conditioned rooms during the hot Wisconsin summer, Ohlinger and his group were charted by the City of Madison and contracted with the cable company as the Madison Community Access Center -- Cable Channel 4. The second show they taped was the television version of their radio book review show.

“I still remember that first television production,” says Cox. “I hosted. We had one black/white television camera. We had one chair. We also had one guest. I introduced the book review program and then a huge poster board sign was held by hand directly in front of the camera lens. I jumped up out of the one chair we had. Our guest sat down in it. Then I proceeded to interview him while standing next to the camera. When we were ready to wrap, the poster board sign went back up in front of the camera lens. The guest got up. I sat down. The poster board sign was whipped away. And I said farewell to the viewing audience.”

“The whole affair was the very definition of amateur -- but we were all thrilled to enter this new medium of public access television and spread the word about books.”

Those humble beginnings turned into "Bookwatch" which ran from 1978 to 2003 with Jim Cox as host. With a volunteer crew who donated their time for a sheer love of the cause, the studio quality of the productions improved to become PBS network-level television. Due health problems, Cox finally had to retire after almost three decades on the air, in January 2003, although an archive of old shows ran in its regular Wednesday night time slot for another eight months.

But the book review operation continues, having expanded somewhat from the original office “the size of a pregnant closet” in an old house on the edge of the University of Wisconsin. The name evolved into Midwest Book Review and it has relocated to slightly more spacious accommodations, but the shelves still bulge, the floor joints creak, and the shipping area is awash with discarded book packaging materials accumulated in plastic bags, bundles, and boxes for recycling.

On his bedside table “the books stack as high as gravity will allow,” and Cox keeps a couple of audiobooks handy in case his eyes get too tired to read a printed page. MBR has one mascot -- Melody, an aged, arthritic, diabetic, strong-willed cat “who adores my wife and tolerates me.”

* * * * *

In 1980 Cox’s job as a school Developmental Disabilities Coordinator was terminated when Ronald Reagan and a conservative congress gutted funding devoted to special education. (Federal money for public library systems as also plundered at that time.)

“As a social worker I saw the writing on the wall for social services spending for the next few years. So I took my 30 hour a week ‘hobby’ as a book reviewer and turned it into a full time profession. John Ohliger and I parted company over that. He was an altruist and a social reformer who felt that his little experiment should remain as a band of local Madison community part-timers who were in it for the honor of it all. I wanted to go national, launch a library newsletter, expand out onto the internet, and be able to support myself.”

Cox had been primarily responsible for the day-to-day office work that kept the wheels turning and the pump primed, and just three weeks after he left the review operation collapsed.

“Everyone liked the idea of free books, but nobody wanted to do the hard work that insured there would be books to hand out for review: writing letters, sending out tear sheets, following-up review assignments, emptying the trash, manning the phone, etc.”

Cox borrowed $1000 from his father-in-law to buy letterhead stationary, a computer, and some postage -- and never looked back. Today MBR is among the most prolific review journals in the world, bringing recognition to hundreds of book that might otherwise go unnoticed.

How did Ohlinger feel about it?

“Over the years John and I would come across one another -- Madison is that kind of community. He was constantly involved in one or another group, cause, or experiment for social justice. I always acknowledged my debt to him as my mentor and the man who made my subsequent career as a book reviewer and as the Editor-in-Chief of a multi-media book review operation possible.”

“In March of 2004 I was informed by my long-time friend Hank Luttrell that John Ohliger had died. He was 77 years old and succumbed to a combination of diabetes complications and a severe bout of the flu.”

“John was one of a kind. He was my friend and I was his -- even after we parted ways and held to differing political and philosophical views. John will always receive his due credit from me for what the Midwest Book Review is all about and what it has achieved over these past 28 years. I wish you could have known him.”

* * * * *

Today MBR has 76 active volunteer reviewers who review between 600 and 700 books each month (of the average 1500 titles MBR receives). They publish four monthly library newsletters and produce five online book review magazines. They are content providers for Amazon.com, provide reviews to a number of thematically appropriate websites and online discussion groups, and all of MBR’s reviews are posted on their website for one year.

“We still continue to honor the founding principles laid out for the Midwest Book Review almost 30 years ago: Support literacy, library usage, and small press publishing. Our friends in the publishing community are legion. My appreciation for the small army of writers, editors, illustrators, publicists, and publishers that have offered words and gestures of appreciation down through the years is simply beyond my ability to express except to say: Book reviewers like feedback every bit as much as authors and publishers!”

Is it still as exciting as it was in 1976 to crack the cover of a new book?

“While in many ways the bloom is off the rose, I still get up every morning looking forward to what my work day will bring. I still take pleasure in meeting deadlines and getting out our publications every month. I still feel honored when folks out there in the publishing community express their appreciation for what the Midwest Book Review stands for and how it has been of practical assistance and occasional inspiration for them.”

“Just this past week the Wisconsin State Historical Society came by and took possession of our entire 23 year archive of library newsletters. They will be microfilming them, archiving the originals, and making all our work available to posterity and future academia.”

“It seems that what we have created here will outlast me and my generation.”

“And that's a good thing.”

Jim Cox on how love of books and literature transcends political differences:

“The reading of books is essentially a meeting of minds. Some minds are brighter, more original, more impressive, and more memorable than others. So it is with books. It's hard to keep a closed mind when encountering the likes of Adam Smith or Isaac Asimov.”

“When I was in my sophomore year at Brigham Young University I joined the John Birch Society. I read everything on American history, American politics, and the United States Constitution I could get my hands on. I became a fervent partisan of a particularly severe band of American political conservatism. Then I had to leave school at the conclusion of my sophomore year because I ran out of money. For the next year I worked in Salt Lake City as a janitor in the basement of Sears & Roebuck.”

“Salt Lake City has a superb public library and that's where I found a ten-volume collection of the complete works of Mao Tse Tung. I vowed that I would read the writings of this infamous Chinese communist with the specific intention of refuting his political beliefs and practices. It took me all summer but I finally finished all ten volumes. After returning that final volume to the library I sat down and wrote a letter of resignation to the John Birch Society.”

“But I could not bring myself to enroll in the American Communist Party. My studies as a Bircher had shown me all too keenly the downside of centralized government and the tyranny that communism employed against anyone unfortunate enough to live in one of their societies. On the other hand, a great many of the observations of Mao Tse Tung on the conditions of social injustice and the oppression of the poor and the working class led me to understand that a free market (capitalism) was not always the best answer to providing some of life's necessities (like health care, for example) for the most vulnerable amongst us.”

“It was my first great lesson in politics and gleaned from books and the men who wrote them. Those books taught me that life is far to complicated for any jingoistic sloganeering or political muckraking to readily identify what needs to be done and how best to go about resolving political, economic, social, and cultural issues.”

“It's also why I'm curiously at home reading books from the Political Left and from the Political Right. Both sides have observations worthy of consideration, remedies worthy of objective discussion, and representatives worthy of respect. Both sides also have total idiots who would rather burn down the world than have to compromise or even just agree to disagree.”  

* * * * *

Although Midwest Book Review bylaws prohibit accepting money from authors or publishers (in order to avoid any conflict of interest issues), they do allow authors and publishers to make a gesture of support for what MBR does on behalf of the small press community: you can donate postage stamps "for the cause."

Midwest Book Review
James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129

Review Submission Guidelines
e-mail: mbr@execpc.com


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