I happened to catch author Sarah Vowell on the Daily Show last week and couldn’t stop chuckling. So I went out this weekend and found some of her work. Am presently in her 2002 book The Partly Cloudy Patriot and am skimming through her latest, The Wordy Shipmates.
In both books, Vowell has much to say about . . . well . . . about a lot of things. Having grown up in Oklahoma, Montana and New York City, she has a very interesting view of America and American History.
The Partly Cloudy Patriot is a series of essays with topics that range from the underground lunch counter at Carlsbad Caverns to people who compare themselves to Rosa Parks to how presidential libraries protect their presidents.
But a constant desire seems to run through all of what she writes. Vowell wants Americans to be willing to be history nerds, history nerds in a very positive sense. She would like to see people ask more questions, better questions, and even be a bit confused about how we got to where we are and who we are.
American history is a quagmire, and the more one knows, the quaggier the mire gets.
She also has a few things to say about how history is taught.
On the first day of school when I was a kid, the guy teaching history – and it was almost always a guy, wearing a lot of brown – would cough up the pompous same old same old about how if we kids failed to learn the lessons of history then we would be doomed to repeat them.
Which is true if you’re one of the people who run things, but not as practical if your destiny is a nice small life. For example, thanks to my 10th grade history textbook’s chapter on Napoleon, I know not to invade Russia in the wintertime. This information would have been good for an I-told-you-so toast at Hitler’s New Year’s Party 1943, but for me, it’s not so handy day-to-day.
The sort of useful thing the history teacher never really said was this: knowing what happened where and when is fun. And the more history I learn, the more the world fills up with stories. Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks enjoying a chocolately caffe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World.
From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle’s Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention and consumerism served with whipped cream on top.
No wonder it costs so much.
Bill Bryson has just taken a back seat and Sarah’s riding shotgun.