I've always loved the absurdity of history—if for nothing else, than for my own self- preservation. Dwelling on the absurd aspects of the past keeps us from being overwhelmed by the depressing aspects, and it seems reasonable that stomaching the morally questionable rise of modern civilization requires some perspective. Fortunately, nobody understands this necessity better than Sarah Vowell. She approaches the brutal stories of America with equal parts morbidity and joie de vivre. Her previous book Assassination Vacation examines the assassinations of presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley through the unlikely lens of a classic American road trip—except every touristy stopover is related to presidential assassination. The book raises compelling questions about presidents, the men who murder them, and the type of people who take cross-country murder pilgrimages.
Despite her horrible vacation ideas, anyone who has read Vowell or listened to her on NPR (she's often referred to as the one with the "distinctive voice") knows that the wonderful thing about her writing is its ability to painlessly expand your knowledge on the duller sections of American history. She makes you laugh only to slam a spoonful of unpalatable knowledge down your throat. Vowell partially reprises this tactic in her new book, The Wordy Shipmates, a book about the infamously boring Puritans—more specifically John Winthrop and the Boston Puritans. Although not as famous as their Plymouth counterparts, it was Winthrop who gave us the politically infamous "city upon a hill" phrase—a metaphor Vowell returns to frequently throughout the book. But while the book starts out whimsical enough, with sitcom depictions of Puritans (did the Fonz give us the first Thanksgiving after all?) and pithy observations on Puritan sex (not as boring as you might think), Vowell drops the pretense of hilarity by the second half of Shipmates. This bait and switch might prompt many readers to give up on the book. Although certainly an entertainer, Vowell is first and foremost an American-history fanatic, and she has a genuine desire to educate readers on who the Puritans were and why they matter. As such, the value of The Wordy Shipmates is in the eye of the beholder. If you care about these questions, you definitely shouldn't miss this book. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more readable, entertaining account of the Puritans and their influence on the intellectual and cultural ideology of America. But if you're not interested, I hear the Happy Days Thanksgiving episode is really quite excellent.
Sarah Vowell reads Mon Oct 13, Town Hall, 7:30 pm, $5.