Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Having time to read.


This Christmas, my sister Jenny got me an Amazon gift certificate, so I picked up a few books from authors I have enjoyed recently. Being underemployed, I've taken work in Fremont as a tutor, which is a half hour ride on BART each way, a perfect chunk of time for reading. I've had finished two books I bought with the gift certificate in January, the new Nick Hornby collection of book reviews Shakespeare Wrote For Money and Sarah Vowell's latest historical treatise about the beginning of the Massachusetts Bay colony, The Wordy Shipmates.

I could easily write a separate blog post about each, but there are obvious connections that justify writing about the books together. The first and most obvious is that Sarah Vowell writes the introduction to Hornby's book, starting her short piece with the sentence "I like liking things." She should like Hornby. While they appear to be very different, in some important ways they are almost the same person. Hornby is British, obsessive about Arsenal football and pop music, best known for fiction, but also has written criticism and a memoir thrown in, while Vowell is American, obsessive about American history and pop culture, best known for her radio pieces on This American Life and books about American history that are at once scholarly, personal and very funny. What they have in common is their sense of humor, which springs from their acceptance of their nerdy selves.

Shakespeare Wrote For Money is the second and last of book of essays taken from Hornby's employment stint as a monthly book reviewer for the San Francisco based magazine The Believer, the first book entitled The Polysyllabic Spree. The magazine is run by people who Hornby describe as a cult, one to which he does not belong, but that is no reason not to take the work. As in the previous book, each chapter is a essay from the monthly magazine and begins with a list of books Hornby has bought and another list of books he has read. Early in this working relationship, the editors at The Believer decided that because this was supposed to be a celebration of the joys of reading, they forbade Hornby from giving books bad reviews. At first he bristled slightly, adding to his list of books titles like Anonymous Spy Novel or Anonymous Non-Fiction when he read a book he didn't like, but by the time he writes the essays that comprise Shakespeare Wrote For Money, he only has one untitled book in fifteen months.

The big change from the first book is that Hornby wrote a novel called Slam that his editors decided to market as young people's fiction, so he became acquainted with the genre and reads and enjoys many books recommended to him by other authors in his new field. He also has a month where he does nearly no reading and cheerfully admits it, because the World Cup was being played and his days were full of football, and another month the editors ask him to write about the movies he's seen, which means in Hornby's case watched on DVD since he is the father of small children and has little time to go out. The title of the book comes his review of James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, the year in which the bard finished Henry V, wrote Julius Caesar and As You Like It and starts the draft for Hamlet. I sometimes get the suspicion that the incredibly talented have these remarkable bursts of productivity just to annoy the 99.999% of humanity that has less talent. Hornby may agree with me, as he writes "I was partly attracted to Shapiro's book because I'd had a similarly productive 2006 - although, unlike Shakespeare, I'm more interested in quality than quantity, possibly because I've got one eye on posterity."


The Wordy Shipmates follows the travails of the passengers of the Arbella, the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Vowell chooses John Winthrop as her main focus, and details his many conflicts with his fellow Puritans and the local native tribes, most notably the Pequot, Narragansett and Mohegan. Vowell understands that most Americans' understanding of the English settlers of New England is "first thankgiving, blah blah blah, Salem witch hunts". This book is designed to give more form and substance to the blah blah blah part.

Winthrop, a layman, writes a sermon entitled "A Model of Christian Charity", which is best known today as the source of the "city on a hill" metaphor used by Reagan's speechwriter. The Massachusetts Bay Company's official seal depicts a native saying "Come and Help Us". Vowell, who was born and raised in Oklahoma and has Cherokee ancestry, has a pretty good idea how that "help" will manifest itself. One of the three aforementioned tribes is effectively erased from the faced of the earth by the English settlers under Winthrop's Christian reign.

The disagreements with other settlers described in Vowell's book are nearly all about Christian doctrine. The Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock were separatists, wanting nothing to do with England, but the Puritans of Massachusetts want to "purify" the Church of England, not divorce themselves from it. While disagreements arise with many people, Roger Williams is a major thorn in Winthrop's side. Williams is major troublemaker in Massachusetts, and is finally banished to Rhode Island, where as governor he makes a law that gives all who live there the freedom from government interference in their religious practices. Vowell makes it clear that the view of Williams as a proto-Jefferson is not correct. Williams is happy to make sure the government can't banish you for believing in something different from what he believes, but he is convinced that those who disagree with him will be banished to hell by God when the time comes.

At the end of the book, Anne Hutchinson, the second major irritant to Winthrop, becomes a central character. Like Williams before her, she is banished from Massachusetts Bay because of religious differences with the ruling counsel. Unlike Williams, whose doctrine was harsh and social skills weak, Hutchinson was a threat because she was far too popular, and she had the support of James Cotton, the most prominent preacher in the colony. While Williams wrote many sermons and pamphlets which survive, Hurchinson's work does not survive, so we only have her words at her trial and the record of her achievements. Vowell, who is not herself religious, is fascinated by the doctrinal debates and chooses sides, though she clearly is not ready to become part of any of the congregations lead by any of the characters in her book. Her own relationship with religion came to a crossroads when attending church as a child eight times a week meant missing the start of Charlie's Angels, and in her case, the better coiffed angels of her nature won.

I heartily recommend both of these books, quick reads, entertaining and informative. The next book I will be carrying on BART is Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan, which was recommended to me by my old high school buddy Steve Lilley.

1 comment:

CDP said...

I just put both of these on my "to read" list.