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January Book Club: The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell's The Wordy ShipmatesIt should come as no surprise that when librarians (and archivists) want to learn more about something, they hit the books. In order to deepen our knowledge of the collection, the CLA staff has resolved to start 2020 off by reading and discussing one book a month related to the collection and our work within it.

We eased into this with our first book club pick, The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell, who you might know from NPR’s This American Life, or as the voice of Violet in The Incredibles. In her characteristic arch style, Vowell introduces us to Boston’s Puritan forebears, led by John Withrop, and the ways in which the ethos of this group still impacts us today.

Vowell places heavy emphasis on Winthrop’s sermon, “On Christian Charity” which famously calls on those in the colony to establish “a city on a hill”, an image which has echoed through American culture. In many ways, this speech prefigures the best and the worst of the Puritans and of us, at once “yoked together” and committed to mutual aid and also chosen by God to serve as an example to others, and therefore above reproach.  Rather than revert to tired stereotypes of stodgy Puritans, Vowell imbues these complex historical figures--John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson--with humanity. She describes them lovingly, but doesn’t shy away from criticism. There’s a lesson here about how we can approach the discussion of more complicated aspects of material in our collection.

Throughout the book, Vowell weaves history with her contemporary experience of it, describing her visits to our neighbors, the MA State Archives and the Massachusetts Historical Society,  and the Pequot History museum in Connecticut. She sheds light on a period of history often glossed over in textbooks and history class and describes the complicated conflicts of religion between the Boston colonists and others, and all of the factors that preceded King Philip’s War.

After finishing Wordy Shipmates, staff have come away with a better understanding of who the Puritans were (even those of us who grew up in close proximity to the Mayflower waterslide), a deeper understanding of parts of American history that are often glossed over in school and the ways material in our collection ties into these stories and how we can share them in a way that’s both engaging and informative.

Our February read will be The Book: a History of the Bible by Christopher De Hamel.