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Downtown View: The Evidence of Daffodils

So I’m sitting in front of the fireplace on a rainy day listening on my husband’s iPad to Paul McCartney singing “Yesterday.” I’m reading Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cat’s Table.” I’m thinking that “Yesterday” might be one of the world’s finest songs. I’m thinking Paul McCartney is a prodigious talent in a great big field of songwriters. I’m thinking that the iPad might be one of the world’s finest inventions. Its speakers are tiny but as good as those we had 20 years ago in the four-foot versions. I’m thinking that Michael Ondaatje is a superb writer, and this is just another one of his remarkable books.

That gets me thinking: With all the talent the world can produce, how can the American public be so dumb? Is dumbness what we mean by American Exceptionalism?

You know—the guy who shouted, “Keep the government’s hands off my Medicare.” Or the Senate candidates who never learned how the reproductive system works. The birthers. Or the people who believe in voter fraud. Okay, maybe they just hate people of color. But there are people who actually believe this stuff.  I know a couple. (And now, you’ll remind me, that there actually has been voter fraud, this year, perpetrated by the same people who said they are trying to root it out. But that’s not the point.) The New York Times reported last week that even teachers are saying their students lack an acceptable attention span.

It gets pretty depressing to think about how dumbness and lack of accomplishment is becoming the norm. In the news biz, we were told, “Never overestimate the intelligence of your readers.” To counteract the tendency to go into that dark space where I think the collective IQ has plummeted, I find it helpful to note the ways in which people display intelligence and accomplishment of the good kind.

Take daffodils, for example. Next spring, prepare for a visual onslaught. Mayor Menino has doled out 40,000 bulbs again for planting all over the city. The Friends of the North End Parks has finally gotten permission from the Greenway Conservancy to plant 12,500 daffodils in the northernmost section of the Greenway. The Charles River Conservancy is planting 10,000 daffodils along the Charles River again, after planting the same number for the last four years. Daffodils spread. Planting them in profusion is an example of applying a little intelligence toward an accomplishment with a large impact. Such promise of spring beauty keeps us going through the winter.

City Councilor John Connolly is an elected official who gives one hope for the intelligence and accomplishment of Americans. He has applied himself to a plan for school assignments that may or may not prevail. But with it, he broadened the conversation. His attention to the schools is personal, since his kids are public school students, but his actions benefit everyone. Remember a year or so ago when Connolly showed up at a few school cafeterias and found out-of-date food?

It’s Connolly, but it is also his fellow city councilors whom I’m proud of these days. I’ve written about this before, but it still warms my heart. The council is no longer the butt of jokes. The councilors are more representative of Boston’s citizenry than they were a few years ago, and they’re more intelligent and effective. Apparently, they have finally come up with a redistricting plan that Menino can sign. Good for them, and good for us.

I just learned about another plan that reinforces the possibility that some people are intelligent and accomplished. The Associates of the Boston Public Library are encouraging you to read three books from 1912: Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan of the Apes,” Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage,” and Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice.”

I look up to the highest shelf next to the fireplace where my husband’s grandfather’s collection lives, and there they are. T. Whit Taylor was 26 years old when those books came out, and maybe he read them all that year. If so, he would enjoy the Associates’ program tomorrow night. (If you don’t have a grandfather’s collection, you can get the first two books free on a Kindle, and Mann’s is only 99 cents.)

The Associates will host a panel discussion of these 1912 books on November 7 at 6 p.m. in the Abbey Room in the main library in Copley Square. The audience will choose the best of the three, awarding that book the “Hundred-Year Retroactive Book Award.”

The panelists are intelligent. They are accomplished. It’s the night after the election, at which point one side is going to be thinking the American electorate is dumb and will need an antidote to that belief. The other side can just enjoy the discussion.

Downtown View
is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007.
She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at