Sarah Vowell is one of those authors I respect but I don't particularly love. If I'm being completely honest, I'd say I'm pretty neutral about her. Our relationship, if you can call it that, is this: I always put her new books on hold at the library, but I never say, "Yippee!" when they come in for me. I don't know why this is.
Her latest, The Wordy Shipmates, is a case in point. I picked it up at the library and decided a few days later to peruse it while I made supper. (Are you starting to see why I burn a lot of suppers and have a very messy stove?) And really, I thought, this might be the Vowell book that tips me from respecting her books into loving them. It's a popular history of the Puritans who settled in Massachusetts after 1630 (Vowell points out these Puritans aren't as well known as their Mayflower compatriots, who arrived roughly a decade earlier), their political and religious beliefs, and most particularly the individuals who dreamed of keeping political influence out of their church and founding a "city on the hill"--most notably, two men named John Winthrop (Massachusetts Bay Colony governor) and Roger Williams (one of Rhode Island's founders).
For the first forty pages or so, she totally had me. The history's interesting and the writing's snappy. Consider her opening line:
"The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief. And by dangerous I don't mean thought-provoking. I mean: might get people killed."
And it continues:
"Here we arrive at the reason why this here tale of American Puritans is more concerned with the ones shipping off from Southampton for Massachusetts in the Arbella in 1630 than with the Pilgrims who sailed from Southampton toward Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620: because the Plymouth colonists were Separatists and the Massachusetts Bay colonists were not.
Before I explain that, I will say that the theological differences between the Puritans on the Mayflower and the Puritans on the Arbella are beyond small. Try negligible to the point of nitpicky. I will also say that readers who squirm at microscopic theological differences might be unsuited to read a book about seventeenth-century Christians."
That's good writing. She's funny. She's smart. And I love, for the most part, where most of her logic ends up (as in the case where she deduces that preemptive wars to "spread democracy" all started when Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife, thereby causing the Church of Rome/Church of England split, thereby encouraging the Pilgrims to settle in America, etc.). But, as much as I loved the first fifty pages, by the time I made it to page 100, I was ready to be done. Isn't that weird? It happens to me EVERY TIME I read a Sarah Vowell book.
I do have a couple of thoughts on why this might be. For one, there's no chapters in this book, just section breaks, and I like chapters. Preferably short chapters, so I can really feel like I'm getting somewhere. I need a good chapter ending, for one thing, to feel good about putting the book down. Without chapters I'm adrift. Secondly, as much as I like the writing, it always seems to me that Vowell needs some larger organizing principle. Her text always feels a bit rambling to me; like I'm not sure where we're going or how we're getting there.* And third? I've never been all that interested in American history, which is the territory Vowell usually covers. I did perk up a bit when she started talking about the Magna Carta, a copy of which, by the way, was the document I most enjoyed seeing when I visited Washington D.C.**
But overall, it was still a good read. I'll definitely get her next book too. But I'm still kind of hoping it has chapters.
*The only part of high school education I really enjoyed was writing five-paragraph essays. I LOVE five-paragraph essays. Introduction with theme statement, three supporting paragraphs, conclusion. Form following function. Beautiful.
**I know. I'm a terrible American. I've been told.