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Dave Wood's Book Report, Sept. 30, 2009

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Several years ago, the chair of the University of Minnesota Journalism Department felt me out about whether or not I would like to join its faculty as a writing teacher.

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I replied that sounded great, thinking about its famous grads, like Harry Reasoner, Eric Severaid, Max Shulman, et al.

"Good," said the chair. "It'll be a tough sell, getting you accepted by the department?" How so, I asked.

"You don't have any publications," he replied.

"I most certainly do. I've published three books, I've written hundreds of columns for newspapers and magazines all over the country ...."

"I know, I know. But you haven't any scholarly publications."

Needless to say, I never got the job.

Michael Norman is not your typical academic journalism professor. He actually writes books that people actually read. His venue is not the Columbia Journalism Review, which is a glorified sociology/demographics journal.

His venue is haunted America. You may have seen him on cable television or you may have read all or some of his five books.

Suffice it to say he's a retired journalism prof, after having taught many years at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

Norman has now turned his attention to the state of Minnesota. "The Nearly Departed: Minnesota Ghost Stories and Legends," by Michael Norman (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $16.95 paper).

As the title suggests there are lots of ghosts that some people have reported showing up.

Norman found a mother lode of information from one Greg Kneser, a vice president of St. Olaf College, who has kept a record of reported ghostly sightings on the Northfield campus, which has always struck me as looking slightly haunted, especially the gothic-spired heating plant smokestack.

My favorite of all was the girl who reported seeing a woman in the stacks at Rolvaag Library reshelving mis-sorted books.

When Kneser told a present-day librarian, he replied "Goodness, that sounds like Charlotte Jacobson; she always did that even after she retired. But she's been dead for years."

Before Norman starts out on his well-researched ramble through the ghosts of Minnesota, he warns the reader that nothing is documented, nailed down for real, but that's the fun of it all.

My friend Bruce Johnson interrupted me as I was digging potatoes a few weeks back. Bruce is a great reader, tears through books a mile a minute and he had a present for me. Bruce and I like to talk about books, but we don't usually share. So I figured this new book must be a humdinger.

I figured correctly. I hereby nominate "Know It All," by A.J. Jacobs (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, $14) as the greatest john reading of this or any other century. It's the sort of book you can dip in for a few minutes, then set down until the next time.

"Know It All" tells the story of Jacobs, an editor at Esquire magazine, who determined to read right through the Encyclopedia Brittanica, all 33,000 pages and 44,000,000 words of it.

I suppose that's not so uncommon. I had a friend in grade and high school who amused himself by reading through an unabridged Webster's dictionary.

What makes Jacobs' book so uncommon is his commentary on the entries from A to Z. He learns lots of things an Aardvark, for example has six anuses and he has a terrible time trying to use that bit of information in casual conversations with his associates.

Rags to riches author Horatio Alger lost his teaching job for sexual misconduct. Nathaniel Hawthorne spent his later years by constantly writing the number 64 on scraps of paper.

John Heisman coached football at Georgia Tech and got an award named after him. He was also a Shakespearean actor who trod the boards in the off-season.

"Why aren't there any Shakespearean coaches nowadays? Asks Jacobs. "Now all we get is Bill 'the tuna' Process and his love of Henrik Ibsen.

Okay, well don't even have that because I made that up. My point is, John Heisman is proof -- just in case you needed it -- of how far we've slid into dumbness."

Finally, Zywiec is a town of 32,000 people and several breweries in Poland.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at (715) 426-9554.

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