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History With A Twist – Sarah Vowell Reading List

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Posted by Mary Ann

I have a bright idea for the revival of American literature in our nation’s schools. Take the standard history texts, then have students read Sarah Vowell’s books on the same subjects as an alternative. I am pretty sure this will generate some class discussion!

I realize this idea is not going to catch fire with school boards nationwide, but if Sarah Vowell had been around when I was a young student of history, I would have caught on to how fascinating it is sooner than I did.

Today I am a rabid reader of history, and Sarah Vowell is one of my go-to sources for illustrating the sheer nuttiness of much of human behavior down through the ages. She’s not afraid to point out some of the crueler aspects of American history, but she retains an affection for the subject. She is a true HISTORY GEEK (I mean that in a good way).

There are other wonderful popular history writers out there, authors who love history but who know how to grab your attention. Here are some of their books, all by history geeks of the first order. But before we leave Sarah Vowell behind – my second-favorite Sarah Vowell book (after Lafayette) is her book about the history of Hawaii, 2011’s Unfamiliar Fishes.

1UnfamiliarFishesIf you have ever visited Hawaii, you know all about its wonderful beaches, blissful tradewinds and fantastic natural settings. Behind this beautiful stage set is a lot of history – one of my favorite Hawaiian activities is to visit the many museums that testify to the story of strange and wonderful place.

In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell took on Hawaii’s fascinating and traumatic story. Hawaii went from a kingdom, complete with a despotic king, to a colony of America run by the descendants of missionaries, to America’s 50th state in record time. Once Captain James Cook landed there in the 1700s (he was murdered there in 1779 by natives on a Hawaiian beach) things were never the same.

Vowell is clearly sympathetic to the island’s natives, but she does not sentimentalize them – the royal hierarchy was a very top-down system, and let me just say that you didn’t want to tick off the king. She even finds things to love about the well-intentioned 19th century New England missionaries who invaded the place, though she does not love their intolerance towards the native way of life. Take this book with you on your next Hawaiian vacation – you will see the place through different eyes, and be hugely entertained.

Did I just mention Captain Cook? I believe I did! Another of my favorite history-with-a-twist books is Tony Horwitz’ Blue Latitudes: Going Boldly Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before.2BlueLatitudes

I loved this 2002 book. Horwitz, a humorist and historian, followed the trail of Captain Cook all around the world, going back to Cook’s original accounts, then updating the story by reporting on what has happened to the places Cook visited (a visit by Captain Cook meant that a lot of Englishmen could not be far behind).

The inveterate English explorer visited the Pacific three times in the 1700s. Horwitz follows in his wake, visiting Tahiti, Bora-Bora, New Zealand, Australia, Tonga, Alaska, Hawaii. (He did skip Antarctica, candidly admitting that he likes warm places better.)

Horwitz is straightforward about Cook’s mixed legacy; civilization, to be sure, but also colonization, disease and other influences spread by white explorers. Horwitz is great at bringing Cook’s grand adventure back to life; whatever the outcome, this age of exploration was an exciting and illuminating experience for its participants.

3ConfederatesinAtticDid I mention Tony Horwitz? I believe I did! Another great history-with-a-twist book is his breakout book, Confederates in the Attic.

This 1998 book deserves a first, and even a second read. After moving to Virginia, Horowitz heard the sound of gunfire outside his house, followed it and discovered a group of Civil War-reenactors spread out on a neighboring field. He entered the strange and fascinating world of these people, many who have become so obsessed with the Civil War that the highest and best use of their time is to re-stage the battles between the Blue and the Gray. Down to the food, the wounds, and even the deaths.

Horwitz had some re-enactors in his family, so he set out to re-enter the fray. He comes up with some amazing stories about some unforgettable characters. (One guy specialized in imitating a bloated corpse). He also discovered, especially as he crossed and re-crossed the modern day South, that a lot of divisions created by the Civil War have never really healed. This is a book that combines the best of humor and politics, history and tragedy.

Another writer who takes history and makes it eminently readable is Bill Bryson. This guy, an American transplanted to Britain, has written many entertaining books, but the one I have in mind is At Home: A Short History of Private Life.4AtHome

Most histories concentrate on big things – kingdoms, countries, social movements. Bryson gets out his historical microscope and concentrates on the humble but very necessary objects we rely on every day to keep ourselves clean, healthy, warm, and comfortable. Using his own house, an 1851 rectory in an English village, as a departure point, Bryson writes on everything from buttons to vitamins to staircases. You learn fun facts such as this: the brass bed became popular because it was thought to be impervious to bedbugs! This book will remind you that on a day-to-day basis, life is a lot easier than it was a couple of hundred years ago.

Finally, I want to mention a book I just started that I am finding almost unputdownable. It’s called Common People: In Pursuit of My Ancestors by Alison Light.

5commonpeopleLight is a British historian who has developed something of a specialty in the “common people” – those, like most of us today, who lived out their lives in obscurity.

In this book she frames the story by tracing the geneaology of her own ancestors. They are, as the title suggests, very ordinary, but as she follows their story, the reader watches a wrenching movement of population unfolding, from life in the country, to the small villages of England, and then into the great cities of England’s industrial revolution.

You learn the origin of things we now take for granted – remember Sunday school, which a lot of us squirmed through as children? In 19th century England, Sunday school was often the only place where poor children could learn to read – the government wasn’t paying for it.

This book is a poignant chronicle of how much life has really changed in the last 200 years, and how epic events like war and technological change have shaped everyday experience. Common People will make you want to start researching your own ancestors, if you haven’t already; not just their names and dates of birth and death, but how they really lived.

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