Wednesday, April 27, 2011

April Book Report: The Wordy Shipmates

Reading is Always Better with a Feline Companion
Before becoming aware of her books, I came across Sarah Vowell and her distinctive, slightly nasal voice on This American Life. I picked up her book The Wordy Shipmates for $4 and took it with me to the meetings. In it, Vowell takes a wide-ranging, not entirely comprehensive view on the Puritans.

Depending on the cocktail parties you attend, you might find some fun facts to bring up in conversation (I foisted these on people during gelato). For example, the Puritans and Pilgrims (of Mayflower fame) were of different Protestant ideologies and while they were  hard working, clean living folk, they believed there was nothing one could do on earth that made any difference as to your ultimate salvation.  Perhaps most interesting, considering they left England because they refused to conform to the Church of England, they valued virtually nothing in civil life more than subjugating ones opinions and behaviors to the will of the group.  This inevitably resulted in the casting out of heretics who believed in things like free speech and equality for women  (see: the founding of Rhode Island) .

These historical tidbits alternate with personal reflections and pop-cultural references that trace the influence of Pastor John Winthrop's "City on a Hill" sermon down through Reagan and Abu Gharib (the book was published in 2008).  Vowell concludes, "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 [His] wrath and retribution."  This is not, by any means a book that bashes America or religion, but one that acknowledges that modern Americans, like the Puritans before us, don't always live up to the hype of being a "shining city on a hill."

Those (like me) with an interest in history, but little patience for dry recitation, will enjoy this book.  It is a quick read and reminds me of the spirit of the Stuff You Missed in History Class Podcast, which I also highly recommend.


  1. Is it odd that I heard that last quote in Sarah Vowell's voice in my head? Hazard of listening to the archived episodes of This American Life over the last few months.

    And I just noticed that you posted your stash in your sidebar. Brave woman. I'd be embarrassed to post mine publicly, I think.

  2. I did that through a lot of the book. I think it made it better. I wonder if she recorded her own audio book?

    I made a list of my stash for my own use but put it there to remind me to work through it before I buy more yarn! I have a deal going with myself not to buy any more yarn, fabric, and other craft items until I finish a few of the many projects I bought supplies for and never finished!


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