I’ve been trying to catch up on some reading, trying to tidy up what I’ve been thinking of, since I read this article, as my shelf of constant reproach. It’s not a project I really hope to ever complete, because that would in some way imply that the shelf is empty, which is never the goal. But I did become somewhat overwhelmed recently when I saw countless bookmarks sprouting from the tops of books like so much excited monkey grass. You see, in my reading world I have a problem. I love starting a new book. And it isn’t so much that I dislike finishing books as it is that my Google-search-and-sound-bite-addled-onehundredfortycharactersorless brain gets, shall we say, distracted. Maybe I have a problem following through. (Will I ever finish Welty’s Losing Battles? Stay tuned!)
The shelf is crowded, but I’ve been making a concerted effort to catch up with myself. After more than two years, I finished Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna which was, after all, well worth it. Two years later, and I also finished Ted Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass. And I finally, finally read Tinkers which, for me, was one of those books in which I underlined passages so lengthy and complex and beautiful that I couldn’t stand to dwell on them for long, and don’t have much to say about them now, but know that some day I will go back and sit with them, read them again and carefully, and finally let them in. I finished Jill Jonnes’ Eiffel’s Tower: The Thrilling Story Behind Paris’s Beloved Monument and the Extraordinary World’s Fair that Introduced It, which I started as we flew off to Paris and about which more soon. And Sarah Vowell. The Wordy Shipmates made it onto my summer reading list two years ago, and was sitting on my shelf with a bookmark tucked somewhere near the halfway point. I pulled it down and can now check it off my list, too.
A while back I sent some samples of my writing through the I Write Like machine and was told, depending on the passage, that I wrote like Stephen King,* David Foster Wallace, and Mark Twain. (*I also recently read King’s 11/22/63, which I recommend heartily.) If you’d just asked me, though, I would have told you that I would like to write like Sarah Vowell. I mean, who but Sarah Vowell could sum up the doctrine of predestination in a single paragraph and, the clever twist, make you laugh while doing it?
Of course, Sarah Vowell has already cornered the market on writing like Sarah Vowell. Whether she’s analyzing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, throwing up on a sea voyage out to the prison at Dry Tortugas, doing a close reading of “A Model of Christian Charity” or trying to understand the plight of the Pequot, she offers insight into American history with a piercing intellect that is mixed with just the right amounts of sass and snark. I love her for it. I love her for her unapologetic reverence for Abraham Lincoln, for never letting Reagan off the hook, for “being a good American without being a terrible bore” and, always, for sentences like “The United States is often called a Puritan nation. Well, here is one way in which it emphatically is not: Puritan lives were overwhelmingly, fanatically literary.”
Once I tie up some more of these loose ends, other treasures await. Vowell’s Radio On is still on the shelf, and it is in good company beside Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, Willie Morris’s Terrains of the Heart and Other Essays on Home, and every novel William Maxwell ever wrote.
For now, though, The Wordy Shipmates has been taken down, moved from its place on the shelf of constant reproach to a different shelf — the one where I put books I hope to read again one day.