Thursday, December 18, 2008

BOOKS: The Wordy Shipmates

I'd always enjoyed Sarah Vowell's segments on This American Life, so I expected I would enjoy her books as well. Reading her latest, The Wordy Shipmates, I was as delighted as I hoped to be. Vowell has a deep appreciation for history, a keen eye for irony, and a sharp wit. Her distinctive charm is her voice, both figuratively and literally. Her speaking voice has the innocent earnestness of a Peanuts character, while her "voice" is incisively sardonic commentary, rich with wacky metaphors and ironic juxtapositions. The combination is masterful deadpan. My only worry was that even great deadpan, unbroken, would get monotonous, but it was not so. Her wry observations were leavened with sincere ones, and her passion for the subjects of her study was all the more contagious for her truly earnest moments.

The subject of this book was the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts, a subject made quite fascinating by her expositions of different facets of their story. I learned much (for instance, I never before appreciated the differences between the Pilgrims and the Puritans), and was introduced to great characters -- John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson -- of whom I had known little more than their names. Vowell's sketches, while sardonic, are also well-grounded in source material, which is often quoted. In the audio book, read by Vowell herself, the quoted parts are read by actors, an interesting effect, as you get to recognize the voices after a while. Rather than a strictly chronological sequence, she presents a series of expositions on different characters and themes, which interlock and reinforce one another to paint a full history by the end. Unlike most historians who endeavor to be objective and detached, Vowell wears her distinctive point of view on her sleeve. She relates personal anecdotes and sentiments reflecting her subject, and at times makes ironic juxtapositions with more modern events with an unabashed subjectivity. For instance, her meditations on the theme of a "city on a hill", articulated in a famous sermon by John Winthrop, recur in accounts of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but also jump to Reagan and Kennedy and other brief excursions into American exceptionalism. I don't see this as detracting from the history at all, in fact, it makes it more memorable. Just as a columnist with an explicit viewpoint can be just as illuminating and credible as an "objective" journalist, so is Vowell's style of history as illuminating and credible as a drier scholarly history. Her distinctive retelling of their stories brings these historical characters to life. A greatly entertaining and educational read.

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