The Good Fortune of Getting Fired

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Last week, Carla Cohen, founder of the Washington bookstore Politics and Prose, passed away. She will be missed by countless local residents, and also by the many writers on book tours who enjoyed her store's hospitality and devotion to reading. I was fortunate to live near the store during a fellowship year in the mid-'90s.

The Washington Post has used her example to illustrate how setbacks can motivate success.The store's own site tells a wonderful story of positive unintended consequences: how the Reagan administration's cutbacks eliminated her government job in the early 1980s, and how Ms. Cohen went against the grain of her passionately leftist family background to go into business:

Entrepreneurship . . . was not in her background.  Her maternal grandfather, Sidney Hollander, had fled his pharmaceutical company as early as possible to become social activist and Jewish philanthropist.  Her paternal grandfather, Marcus Furstenberg, a Swedish refugee, a watchmaker in Indianapolis, was a socialist scornful of business.
 

Nearly everyone in her family was in social service.  "Social work is the family business," they used to say.

Indeed, Cohen's entire background was anti-business so it was amusing to her family and all who knew her that Cohen decided to start a bookstore.  It was, however, just like the contrarian character she had inherited that she chose a part of retail then being nationalized.  It was a time at which small, independent bookstores were beginning to perish in large numbers.

Politics & Prose opened in 1984, a small storefront on Connecticut Avenue.  It was entirely an invention of Cohen's passions.  It specialized in current affairs, gave a platform to Washington writers, featured well-known and unknown novelists, and devoted itself to customer service.  It was almost immediately a great success.

Conservatives might say that shows how many bureaucrats might be happier and more fulfilled in the private sector. And liberals could reply that Ms. Cohen's success shows that there are people with great managerial abilities in government who should be encouraged to use them in public service.

Partisan takes aside, Ms. Cohen was in a grand literary tradition. Regime change can be an accidental but powerful blessing for the arts and letters by forcing talented people from mundane jobs.  Alexis de Tocqueville undertook his American voyage with a leave of absence for a study tour as a way to postpone active service to the new July Monarchy of 1830. Niccolò Machiavelli and John Milton alike were displaced officials before writing their respective masterpieces. And even farther back, the Divine Comedy probably wouldn't exist if a hostile faction hadn't exiled Dante, who was officially exonerated only in 2008 in a divided vote of the Florence city council. But as the London Telegraph concluded, "opponents labelled it a 'stunt' and said that Dante's poetry would never have existed were it not for his suffering in exile." [thanks to Wikipedia for the link]

Ms. Cohen surely knew all about her illustrious fellow casualties. She not only founded a Washington institution but continued an inspiring tradition.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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