I just finished reading humorist and social commentator Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation. I picked up a copy at her reading at the Carter Presidential Library & Museum on October 27th when Vowell was in town promoting her latest book The Wordy Shipmates about the influence of the Puritans in New England. Because I had several disparate thoughts as I read the book, I decided to parse my commentary accordingly.
Thought 1 – Sarah Vowell at the Carter Presidential Library
I skipped dinner and arrived almost an hour early at the Carter Center
Vowell -- with her squeaky thin voice and comedic timing -- made the expected witty asides, but the burden of turning Puritan personalities such as Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson and John Winthrop into riveting stories may have been too much even for Vowell, at least on that particular night. It takes a lot of effort and background information to connect Puritans to our current political and social climate even to someone like myself who has a better-than-average knowledge of American history. Moreover, Vowell seemed tired. More than once she mentioned that the rigors of the book tour was taking its toll and said that doing readings was “at odds with her personality.”
During the meandering question and answer period that followed (like many authors she probably feels the responsibility to answer all questions thoroughly), I debated whether to ask Vowell if she was familiar with another book that examines the influence of the Puritans on modern times: David E. Shi’s The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture. (1985). But on that night, hunger trumped curiosity and I exited the building rather than wait in line to get my book signed and ask my question. I left without feeling any buzz — just empathy for Vowell for what must have been a long night on stage.
Thought 2 – Assassination Vacation
Although I liked Sarah Vowell’s macabre travel book Assassination
Vacation fine – again some good witticisms mixed in with history (especially
the spooky fact that Robert Todd Lincoln was in the vicinity of his father’s
assassination in 1865, Garfield’s in 1881 and McKinley’s in 1901) it reminded
me of another book I liked even better: Andrew Ferguson’s Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America. Vowell’s book came
out in 2005 and Ferguson's
Thought 3 – Vowell’s Impact
As it turned out, Vowell's appearance in Atlanta impacted my reading selections somewhat unexpectedly. Since I had to go to ACappella's to get the ticket to attend her reading, I felt an obligation to buy at least something there (besides the $30 The Wordy Shipmates). So I picked up a pristine used copy of Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking and Witold Rybczynski’s Waiting for the Weekend, the latter which I found on the discard table outside the store. Ironically, I read both of them before Assassination Vacation and thought both books superb. Perhaps I will write more on Rybczynski later, because he does have some interesting observations about the concept of reading and leisure, but there actually is a connection between Sarah Vowell and Joan Didion. In Salon’s Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors it was Sarah Vowell who wrote the entry for Joan Didion.