NYT on The Wordy Shipmates

One of the all-time most-common search terms referring people to this blog is (some variation on) {sarah vowell annoying}. I’ve been speculating on this privately for a while, as I did find many aspects of The Wordy Shipmates annoying, but hadn’t realized it was such a…thing. But I noticed today that over the weekend that book was reviewed in the Times by Virginia Heffernan, who is also really, really annoyed by Vowell. But maybe annoyed in a good way?

Vowell, who constantly emphasizes how nerdy (meaning impressive) she finds her own interest in the Puritans, introduces figures like John Winthrop and Roger Williams as if no one’s ever heard of them. She delivers a farrago of free-floating pedantry — “the kind of smart-alecky diatribe for which I’ve gotten paid for 20 years” — having evidently made it her job to enlighten slacker Gen-Xers with a remedial history of our own ­nation.

It’s not right. Vowell’s whole alt-­everything vibe is just dated enough to be cringey. And then there’s her Great Plains accent: can something so wholesome-soundin’ be real? And her politics. Perfectly early-millennium coastal (green, be good, Obama, etc.). Can she really take pleasure in plumping for an autofill ideology that’s so widely shared?

Just as you’re thinking, O.K., the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is worth retelling, but could you turn down the hipster stuff, Vowell manages to align herself squarely with the great American dissident and feminist Anne Hutchinson. Rats! Once again, Vowell gets to be the abrasive wild card. She’s annoying and uppity, and the book has made the case for being annoying and uppity. She’s won.

I’m not quite sure about that, mostly because I’m not quite sure about the effectiveness of the book’s turn toward Hutchinson at the end, other than as some kind of less than fully formed idol worship. But everything else I very much agree with (“autofill ideology that’s so widely shared” indeed!).

3 comments to NYT on The Wordy Shipmates

  • I had not heard of Vowell before I read The Wordy Shipmates…and I won’t be looking for her again. My review is here and as one can see, I did not like the book. Didn’t like her writing style, did not think she proved her points.

  • My husband read my ARC and found it … annoying! When the Times review came out he was delighted to read portions of it to me, bolstering his opinion!

  • denny

    this is the first book i have ever tossed in the trash.i am 65 yrs old and my library has over 2500 volumns.

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