The Wordy Shipmates

2011-10-13

in Bombs and rockets, Books and literature, Geek stuff, Writing

I was first exposed to Sarah Vowell through her entertaining contributions to This American Life and The Daily Show. In addition to being rather charming, she comes across as expressive and very nerdy. Those qualities are also evident in her short and engaging book on Puritan settlers in North America in the 17th century.

Vowell is an American patriot who is nonetheless acutely aware of the injustices in America’s history, from the earliest days of European contact to the present. Thrown in with the discussion of the founding of Rhode Island is a sophisticated conceptual criticism of Ronald Reagan and a moving expression of pure disgust about Abu Ghraib and the use of torture by the Bush administration. She is also delighted to celebrate the achievements of people she admires, and skilled at showing why what they did was important and people in the present should care.

While the book is written in an entertaining and informal style, the subject matter is serious. Vowell pokes some fun at the theological quirks of the Puritans, but she takes their disagreements and positions seriously. Even I found myself caring about the disputes of 17th century theologians. The book is also forthright about the brutality involved in European colonization – from smallpox epidemics that killed 90% of some native tribes to massacres in which men, women, and children are burned alive.

Vowell colours her work in with anecdotes and personal asides. The final result reminds me a bit of Monty Python – clever, funny work that demonstrates a real interest and knowledge about the sometimes-obscure subject matter behind it and a willingness to engage with challenging and controversial topics. One passage of analysis on a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. struck me as illustrative of her way of writing:

I happen to be with King in proclaiming the Sermon on the Mount’s call for love to be at the heart of Christian behaviour, and one of us got a Ph.D. in systematic theology.

I suspect Vowell is one of those authors whose entire canon I will eventually read.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan October 13, 2011 at 8:04 pm

The book also contains a gratuitous number of references to Canada, given the subject matter. Vowell is clearly someone who has thought about what unites and separates these giant neighbours.

Because of the “city upon a hill” sound bite, “A Model of Christian Charity” is one of the formative documents outlining the idea of America. But dig deep into its communitarian ethos and it reads more like an America that might have been, an America fervently devoted to the quaint goals of working together and getting along. Of course, this America does exist. It’s called Canada.

Milan October 13, 2011 at 8:09 pm
. October 13, 2011 at 8:16 pm

“[In Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.] concluded the learned discourse that came to be known as the “loving your enemies” sermon this way: “So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, ‘I love you. I would rather die than hate you.'”

Go ahead and reread that. This is hands down the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical thing a human being can say. And it comes from reading the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical civics lesson ever taught, when Jesus of Nazareth went to a hill in Galilee and told his disciples, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.””

Vowell, Sarah. The Wordy Shipmates. p.45 (hardcover)

alena October 14, 2011 at 11:32 am

Sounds like a good read; can I borrow it?

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