the nerdy shipmates

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I have a book on my bedside table by an author who is described on the dust-jacket as a McSweeney’s person. But I am on a Sarah Vowell kick. How could you not like a person who writes zingers like this one?

Certainly the Puritans believed and said and did many unreasonable things. That kind of goes with the territory of being born before the Age of Reason.

I just finished reading The Wordy Shipmates and I liked it so much I’ve gone back for more, and I’m halfway through Assassination Vacation. These are both quick books to read, almost too quick, if you’re like me and you relish extremely detailed accounts of seventeenth-century theological controversy. I also regret somewhat that I didn’t just take out the book-on-tape from the library, because Sarah Vowell, as those who have heard her on This American Life will know, has a strangely pleasing, yet gratingly monotonous, voice.

This book is about the Puritans in New England, focusing on the foundation and early years of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It does contain some references to pop culture and contemporary American politics, but on the whole, the book is really nerdy, and Vowell doesn’t try to hide that fact. Her narrative focuses on four main problems: the Puritans’ reasons for leaving England and their hopes for the colony, John Winthrop’s dispute with Roger Williams and the latter’s banishment to Rhode Island, the causes and (shameful)) conduct of the Pequot War, and the trial of Anne Hutchinson. Vowell quotes heavily from primary sources, and she is careful to explain unfamiliar words and concepts, so I did not find the book very dense at all.

WARNING: I have read, but not entirely enjoyed, a book about the history of footnotes.

The main reason I found this book so enjoyable, even riveting(!), was not Vowell’s caustic asides or the inherent drama and fascinating foreignness of the period she describes. It is the fact that Vowell’s obvious obsession with her subjects has made her so familiar with their lives and their writings that she tells these stories like the very juiciest gossip. I was left wanting more. Next stop, the Journal of John Winthrop?

I don’t think so actually . . . Instead, The Complete Tightwad Gazette is next on my pile. But in true tightwad fashion, I have to wait for my hold to come in at the library!

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