by Sarah Vowell
Whenever I pick up a book by Sarah Vowell, I wonder how much smarter this nation's youth might be if she were a professor of history. With a voice all too similar to Bart Simpson, she may at first seem a little too comical to take seriously, until you read one of her books. The self described epitome of the classic nerd, Ms. Vowell has a Master's degree in Art History, and is the quintessential history buff who reads verociously and leans a little bit left of center. But the way she articulates all those little known historical facts in perspective with her humor seems to me, might be a truly inspiring way to teach.
In the book, Assassination Vacation, she takes trips with friends and family to museums and historical spots where our presidents lived and died. One example of what I learned was the name of the play during which Abraham Lincoln was assassinated was called "Our American Cousin." John Wilkes Booth knew the play, and knew the exact moment when the laugh line would be delivered, choosing that background noise in which to fire the shot. The laugh line... Lord Dundreary, calling after a Mrs. Mountchessington (who had just accused him of "not being used to the manners of good society"), said, "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Wal, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal - you sockdologizing old man-trap" I know, not that funny, but just so you know, sockdologizing means maniputlative, but Sarah Vowell wondered if it meant more like, "you lying son of a bitch" kind of manipulative. She also says that it was a sort of comfort to know that the bullet hit Lincoln mid-guffaw, considering how the war had weighed on him, at least his last conscious moment was a hoot.
My favorite line is where she talks about McKinley's assassination during the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, NY, where he was shot. The fact that we had just won the Spanish American war in Cuba, just annexed the Phillipines, Guam and Hawaii, had made America suddenly a world power overnight (1901). Here she says, "what better way to calm the nerves of our neighbors than to ask them to put on a show with us." (Canada and Latin America). "The exposition's secret theme: We're Not Going to Shoot You (Especially If You Buy Our Stuff)."
Now thats truly American...and throughout the book, Ms. Vowell subtly compares our past and present in a way that demonstrates how little we've learned. Indeed, if only more people could find there way to a Sarah Vowell book, I truly believe we'd be a much smarter and more enlightened nation.
Other recommendations by Sarah Vowell:
The Partly Cloudy Patriot
The Wordy Shipmates