Friday, February 27, 2009

The Pleasures of The Wordy Shipmates

I got Sarah Vowell's new book The Wordy Shipmates as a gift this winter and noticed (from the back cover) that she was known for being on NPR, so when I walked by the audio version at the library, I picked it up and found that it was even more fun than reading the book silently to myself. Why? Well, for one thing Sarah Vowell has a funny voice (she's the voice of Violet on The Incredibles). For another, she knows just what words to emphasize and where to pause to make sure no one misses her snarky attitude. And for a third, she has all kinds of guest readers on the audio version posing as Puritans, and the contrast between the quotations and her commentary is simply delightful. Also her commentary is invariably succinct and entertaining:
"So if John Calvin doubts he's a good enough Calvinist--which is of course the most Calvinist thought he could have--imagine the jangling nerves of John Q. Puritan."
And if merely commenting on something isn't entertaining enough, Sarah is not above making a silly--but usually memorable--comparison:
"If Nancy Drew were trying to get to the bottom of Winthrop's petty rivalry with Deputy Governor Thomas Dudley, the book might be titled The Mystery of the Pretentious Wainscoting."

The book is more currently topical than I expected it to be, given the subject (17th-century Puritans). And the points that relate to current topics tend to be focal points. Vowell is like a high school teacher who fools you into learning something by being so entertaining that she can sneak it in:
"I will say that the theological differences between the Puritans on the Mayflower and the Puritans on the Arbella are beyond small. Try negligible to the point of nitpicky. I will also say that readers who squirm at microscopic differences might be unsuited to read a book about seventeenth-century Christians. Or, for that matter, a newspaper. Secular readers who marvel every morning at the death toll in the Middle East ticking ever higher due to, say, the seemingly trifling Sunni-versus-Shia rift in Islam, might look deep into their own hearts and indentify their own semantic lines in the sand. For instance, a devotion to The Godfather Part III. Someday they might find themselves at a bar and realize they are friends with a woman who can't tell any of the Godfather movies apart and asks if Part II was the one that had "that guy in the boat." Them's fightin' words, right?"
In fact, just this week I heard a woman state that her prospective dates should declare their love for the muppet Elmo in order to be qualified as suitable date material. And I was told that "all the cool people" love a television show that I had just declared my love for (the canceled-for-seasons-gone-by Firefly).

If there's a central metaphor in this book, it's the "city upon a hill" from John Winthrop's sermon "A Model of Christian Charity." And if the topics Sarah Vowell compares it to already seem dated, that's just one of the perils of writing down your thoughts:

"The thing that appeals to me about Winthrop's 'Christian Charity' and Cotton's 'God's Promise to His Plantation' from this end of history is that at least the arrogant ballyhoo that New England is special and chosen by God is tempered by the self-loathing Puritans' sense of reckoning. The same wakefulness the individual Calvinist was to use to keep watch over his own sins Winthrop and Cotton called for also in the group at large. This humility, this fear, was what kept their delusions of grandeur in check. That's what subsequent generations lost. From New England's Puritans we inherited the idea that America is blessed and ordained by God above all nations, but lost the fear of wrath and retribution.
The eyes of all people are upon us. And all they see is a mash-up of naked prisoners and an American girl in fatigues standing there giving a thumbs-up. As I write this, the United States of America is still a city on a hill; and it's still shining--because we never turn off the lights in our torture prisons. That's how we carry out the sleep deprivation."

I have every confidence that Vowell could come up with a newer comparison today, and she's the kind of writer/speaker that makes everyone wish they knew her well enough to call her up and ask. Wouldn't you just love to know a woman who goes on the Daily Show and declares "I love elitism"?


paj said...

If you want to hear more of her, go to the NPR website and search for segments with her. If you want to see her, go to The Daily Show website and search her name. She did an interview with John Stewart back in October 2008. She's very funny in person, too.

Alison said...

She's done a few segments on This American Life. The one about the mapmaker who traveled with John Charles Fremont and Kit Carson was one of the funniest things I have ever heard.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I would.

I keep forgetting that I want to read this, or better, listen to it. I'll go put it on my list!

Clark said...

Thank you for stopping by my review of the book and leaving a comment. I actually like yours better, though.


Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

This is such a good review -- way better than mine! I forgot about the guest readers, that was one of my favorite parts.