Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The only thing more dangerous than an idea is a belief

Right after Christmas everyone was posting all of the fun books they got for the holidays. I left a comment on Alice's blog mentioning how I got no books. I did not mean this as a "Please take pity on me and SEND ME BOOKS" but because she's awesome and had extra copies of The Wordy Shipmates she sent me a copy. She has extra copies because she bought a bunch when they were on sale. Sort of like a one-woman World Book Night which is a great idea and if I ever see a cheap stack of books I LOVE I will do the same.

I'm not too familiar with Sarah Vowell. I've heard of her. Mostly her latest book Unfamiliar Fishes and her work on The Daily Show and Wikipedia tells me she also did the voice of Violet Parr in The Incredibles. But I've wanted to read something of hers and now I have. Huzzah.

The Wordy Shipmates is about the Puritans that helped get this whole America dealy started. Not the Mayflower Pilgrims but the 1630 Arbella guys that founded Boston and Providence. She argues that John Cotton's farewell sermon, "God's Promise To His Plantation," which pretty much says these Puritans are the next God's chosen people leads to this feeling of American exceptionalism that's still felt today. Though the modern examples are just a sentence here and there, so the focus is on the Puritans themselves.

Vowell reminds me of an academic Bill Bryson. She has lines like "The irony of informing nearly naked people in a wilderness setting about the story of naked Adam and Eve eating the fruit of knowledge and inventing the fashion industry is not lost on [Roger] Williams." And how can you not love that? The reading is slower than the Bryson stuff, but I think that's because she's more focused on the micro, this small time period, versus Bryson looking at the big picture. Thing of his A Short History of Nearly Everything which covers centuries of scientific history. Vowell's tone is funny but not as irreverent as Bryson's. Of course, reading could have also been slow because early American History isn't exactly my favorite subject. It's already an uphill battle.

Despite that uphill battle I really liked the book. I liked the book and I want to read more of her. My favorite sections are when she talks about the Puritans massacre of the Pequot. This is obviously not a happy section of the book, but these were also the parts where Vowell made a more personal connection with the story. She is part Cherokee and these sections feel less like a class lecture than other parts. A very interesting class lecture, but class lecture nonetheless. These were also the parts where the argument about these Puritans being the next God's chosen people come across the strongest. God wanted these guys to settle the land and  so burning men, women, and children alive was pretty much what God wanted.

So yeah, I want to read more Vowell. And she apparently retraced the Trail of Tears with her sister. If she wanted to write a book about that, though it would be super depressing, I'd still read it. In the meantime, I'll need to check out the stuff she's already written.

Side note, I especially like the title quote, probably because it's the same as one from Dogma that Rufus the 13th Apostle/Chris Rock says. And if we can tie things back to Dogma, all the better.

Update to include the Dogma quote
Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name - wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.
Bethany: Having beliefs isn't good?
Rufus: I think it's better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier...

Title quote from page 1

Vowell, Sarah. The Wordy Shipmates. Riverhead Books, 2008.