Saturday, June 19, 2010

Most people don't like to talk about violent historical death

Who wants to read a book about presidential assassination? Me, apparently.

I have a book crush on Sarah Vowell. Many may know her from This American Life on NPR. I know her because she was on the Daily Show once and she made me giggle. Vowell talks about history the way I talk about books - all the time - only way smarter.

I've ready The Wordy Shipmates, Cloudy Day Patriot, and Take the Cannoli (in the last year). Next on the list was Assassination Vacation.

Some can't get into Vowell's books; I get that. When I read her, I imagine I am in one of those kindergarten reading circles staring up at Vowell who is sitting in a tiny plastic kid chair reading to me about plaques and assassins and communes. Her voice is as unique as her writing, and I am all ears, rapt.

This brings us to a big question: why do we read (for fun)? In the reading of Vowell, I get excited about learning about history from a sardonic voice. Her books are history books with flair, jazz hands flair. Vowell loves history, thinks it is interesting, and when you read her books, you think it is interesting too.

So, knowing Vowell will teach me all sorts of things - like the fact that Lincoln's son Robert was creepily around for the first three presidential assassinations - I read her books with the excitement the prospect of new information brings me.

Only, the book is all about death, and apparently some people get creeped by that.

A coworker stopped by my desk to ask what I was reading. With enthusiasm I told her about the first three assassinations of American presidents and the assassins' escape routes and island prisons. With each word I saw the mounting wariness of my coworker. She was slowly backing away as she said, " Oh, that sounds really nice."

Even I know it's not nice, but it is fascinating.

Don't worry, Vowell's next book I'm set to read is about the radio. That can't have that much historical death...right?

"Except for people who were there that one day they discovered the polio vaccine, being part of history is rarely a good idea. History is one war after another with a bunch of murders and natural disasters in between."
Sarah Vowell


  1. I like authors who put their own spin on history but tell it in a truthful way. Wouldn't you rather learn history by reading a book like this, rather than sitting in a stuffy classroom listening to a bored-close-to-retirement-teacher recite paragraphs from the textbook? (That's how I learned history, which is why I don't know my history like I should.)

  2. Jabba - Reading this book actually really made me look at English and ask - do I tell stories about English? And I think I do. Funny stories.