A historian to invite to dinner
Sarah Vowell would be a perfect pick for a hypothetical celebrity dinner party guest list. She’d regale you with quirky facts about presidents and revolutions in her trademark nasal voice, but would probably have a lot to say about Britney’s recent “comeback” too. Vowell’s mix of history, pop culture, and a bit of snark is what she does best. Her latest, The Wordy Shipmates, tackles a notoriously yawn-worthy topic: Puritans. But here you’ll find more than you remember from high school history.
At its best, The Wordy Shipmates draws connections between historical ideology and modern realities. Remember John Winthrop's call for his Massachusetts colony to be a "city upon a hill" for all the world to idealize? Vowell reminds the reader of the potency of this single idea in our country's history. In light of 9/11 and our nation's military actions abroad, the "city upon a hill" ideology has created a country worthy of veneration, but also capable of dangerous narcissism. It's chilling to remember the foundations of this idea.
However, while I enjoyed The Wordy Shipmates, it may not be the best first pick for someone new to Vowell. She digresses into a lot of personal anecdotes (many of which involve sitcoms, which is okay by me) and her style can wander quite a bit. It's a fun read if you're interested in the ideas and motivations of our country's founders, but not so great if you're substituting the book for a history textbook. A better first taste might be her more pop-culture infused Take the Canolli, which features the "This American Life" classic "Shooting Dad," in which she tenderly and humorously describes shooting a cannon with her father.