Book Review: ‘How Iowa Conquered the World’

Waylon Sternhagen

In “How Iowa Conquered the World,” Michael Rank argues that Iowa has had a profound impact on world events, despite the fact that it “is considered a backward farm state full of bumpkins who wear Carhartt jackets and do little besides give the world corn.”

Rank is an ISU alumnus who has self-published a dozen eBooks about history in recent years. In this one, he examines Iowa’s multicultural landscape, as well as its influence on the higher education system, agriculture, American English and politics. He also profiles a handful of famous and influential Iowans, including Intel co-founder Robert Noyce and Nobel Prize-winning biologist Norman Borlaug.

At just five chapters and 135 pages, the book is short but incredibly dense. In each chapter, Rank attempts to break down the complexities of the aforementioned topics and individuals. He allocates roughly 30 pages to each and provides readers with a glut of information in the process.

While such a wealth of information seems like it would be the stuff history buffs would drool over, it is surprisingly one of the book’s downfalls.

When examining significant historical events and movements, it is necessary to look at not just the contributions of a few people in one place, but the changes and evolutions that took place in the world at large. While Rank provides the necessary context and information to fully explain many of the topics covered in the book, he does so in a way that often feels disjointed.

In the opening chapters of the book, Rank jumps from vignettes about great Iowans to pages and pages of background info about their fields of work before jumping back to take an in-depth look at their lives. This storytelling method could work in theory, but it is employed in such a way that makes the narrative difficult to follow. Thankfully, this format is dropped midway through the book, but the latter half of the book still lacks an organic flow of information.

At times, the information and the way it is laid out serves to minimize the historical importance of Iowa, thus entirely undermining the book’s premise. More often than not, it feels as if the information about Iowa is shoehorned into much more information about the Midwest, or even the planet, at large.

Much of the information Rank uses to support his claims is about people who were born in Iowa before moving to other states in early childhood, or who were not from Iowa at all. It seems he equates Iowa with the entire Midwest, often glossing over the fact that many important accomplishments mentioned in the book were the work of Illinoisians and Nebraskans. While it is flattering to think that Iowa was solely responsible for the agricultural revolution of the 1800s and the “newscaster accent,” it is not exactly correct.

Because it is self-published, “How Iowa Conquered the World” has many issues that are common to books written and released without the help of a team of editors and proofreaders. Typos abound, including six very noticeable errors on page three alone. A few sentences are so mangled that they don’t make sense until they have been reread several times.

Perhaps most frustrating is the apparent lack of first-hand research conducted by the author. For much of the book, Rank relies almost entirely on articles written by others. While I concede that it would be unrealistic to expect one man to do independent research on so many topics, the widespread quoting and paraphrasing makes the book feel more like a collection of term papers than a unique, cohesive work.

The bulk of Rank’s independent work comes courtesy of articles he wrote about the 2004 presidential election while working at the Iowa State Daily. One article is reprinted almost in its entirety, though verb tenses were edited to reflect the fact that it was written 10 years ago. While this is indeed Rank’s own work, the fact that he does not explicitly state that he is reprinting an old article nearly verbatim makes it feel like a somewhat lazy way to bulk up the book’s page count.

I can respect the fact that “How Iowa Conquered the World” is a self-published passion project written by a man who clearly has a love for history. Unfortunately, with 12 books published in two years, it seems Rank’s passion has led him to shoot for quantity over quality. Had this book been written with a little more time, attention to detail and research into what Iowa has truly done for the world, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Iowa has indeed conquered it. 

Is Iowa great? Yes, but reading this book probably won’t prove that to you. Take a look around instead.