The excitement over blogs is officially over ladies and gentleman. They are no longer new or sexy to the book industry. I just snuck out of a panel called, oddly, “Blog 2.0”. The idea, I suppose, was to suggest that we are beyond the initial enthusiasm for blogs in the publishing world, but the atmosphere was remedial (and uncomfortably warm, but that might just be the bookish corduroy blazer I’m wearing.) The panel included blog and new media heavyweights like Ana Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette, Kos of Daily Kos, and Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace, but they were plodding the same old ground: Use blogs to promote books; blogs aren’t scary, they’re a part of the media landscape; blogging is so easy, anyone can do it. Though the “2.0” moniker suggested new insights in the merging of new media and publishing, the panel was decidedly “1.0”, and the audience in the half-filled room wasn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm. Still, some of the comments made were worth sharing. Michael Cader suggested that blogs promote “individual voices over institutional voices,” whether the blog lives at Blogspot or the New York Times. Kos decried the notion that books by bloggers have anything more than a tenuous connection to the blog medium. Blogs are not meant to be books, but blogs are a great way to find new voices with built-in audiences. All in all, though, there wasn’t a sense that any new ground is being broken in the marriage of publishing and blogging.
“HELLO MY NAME IS MARX,” read the candy cane colored name tag handed to me. One woman actually said that I looked like a Marx, the scruffy beard and omni-directional head of hair. Another teased that she and I ought to make Marx the latest mintage in Manhattan baby name trending by starting a blog to promote it. A University of Chicago grad said, “Go” — she was ready to talk me under the table with Marxist theory, and when I protested how little I actually remembered off the cuff, she said she would settle for Durkheim, Weber, or Mills. Wasn’t there someone? Goffman? I responded, Nietzsche: Down with the old gods, up with the mania for replacing them! Then our time was up. I joked about how I intended to use the event and number of dates I would meet as a chance to rally support for socialist thought and motion toward a groundswell to upend the capitalist system, which, didn’t they agree, had gone on long enough?
Nobody said they didn’t.
With doomed grandeur, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives” — not accounting, perhaps, for the fortune and fame that could follow publication of a memoir premised on there being no second act. Fitzgerald lived true to his word: his twilight in Hollywood, the mythic cradle of American radical self-reinvention, figured as a long wait for the notes of the nightingale’s song to sound. Marx, on the other hand, declared that everything that has ever happened happens twice: “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” The third time, fourth, fifth, and so on, we are on our own.
Not everyone knows, per Jonathan Sperber’s recent bio, that Karl Marx’s earliest manuscript was called The Book of Love. Student Marx composed the collection of romantic poems for childhood sweetheart and lifelong partner Jenny von Westphalen. Over the course of their lives together, his romance with Jenny transformed into a romance of a different kind, a belief in the inevitability of international revolution whose contours were somewhat hazy, if keenly felt.
This is what happened on the day before Valentine’s Day, 2013, a Wednesday, at the Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street just south of the Calvin Klein billboard in SoHo. A first ever. A good cause: “I Like Your Glasses: Literary Speed Dating.” Each participant found at the entrance a neon green envelope, including a library card in manila sleeve for taking notes on each “date,” and a name tag featuring the handle of a character from a favorite book (favorites requested earlier by e-mail). These would be our pseudonyms for the night. Each date would last an almost militantly enforced four minutes. A single case of lingering — whether affectionate, desirous, or uncertain — could cause the entire caterpillar crawl to go legs up. There was to be no lingering. Lingering is for books.
We each were to have brought one, a title to display for the sake of conversation. From my messenger bag I drew John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. Each “date” station had a name — my point of origin dubbed Heorot for Beowulf’s banquet hall where Grendel was a regular gate-crasher. Café tables set in rows through the heart of Housing Works Bookstore’s assembly space formed the stations, solicitous waiters snaking around them to offer speed-date refreshment, tonic of composure or forgetting.
Two emcees spoke over a scratchy sound system by the bathrooms, raging like Dylan Thomas against the frenetic buzz of our voices. They joked we would hate them and use our hatred of them as grist for conversation with the strangers across from us. I succeeded at not mentioning them until my final match of the night, a brunette with an anchor tattooed on her bare shoulder. Her pseudonym was Estha, one plucked by the organizers’ naming committee from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I looked at her and she looked at me, fleetingly at one in our total disdain for the emcees as they pleaded everyone be quiet. In that moment, I am sure of it, we both wished for their overthrow.
This was as close to authentic connection as I found. Estha was probably about five years my senior (although, impossible to say: she could have been 29, too, a lover of the wind and the rain and the sun on her cheeks). She said that she was bouncing back from a divorce to the guy with whom she had cofounded a restaurant in Brooklyn — the same restaurant, it turns out, I went to on my first date with the last woman to cohabitate with me. I was touched by the coincidence and the total lack of rationale for verbalizing the coincidence to Estha, as we had about a minute left in our exchange, and a top 10 rule of first dates, the real kind, is not to mention exes unless desiring to come off as a pet pitifully leashed to a station wagon pulling obliviously away and gaining speed.
My eyes might have gone a little fuzzy, all the same, and Estha took my expression of fuzziness for susceptibility, emphasizing how she always made sure to mention the name of the restaurant she and her ex founded when possible. I realized Estha, like me, was attempting to find a purpose for the evening, what it had really all been about, if it had not been what it was supposed to be about (the exceedingly worthy charitable cause, notwithstanding). What it had all really been about, I decided, was capitalism, making a product of ourselves and pitching it to strangers at four-minute intervals: life as an ad incarnate. Estha, at least, had the class not to be promoting specifically herself but a physical location in the world that she had played a part in dreaming a reinvention for, one that we, any of us guys carouselling by, could go visit.
There was also Karenina from Idaho — a girl from Idaho! — and June, who was quiet, and Ruth, whose pseudonym’s source text was, for me, a winner, and Grace, who knew her political and sociological thinkers, and Kit, who laughed at me or an awareness of the cool, amusing film through which we saw each other, the cattle stall of the standard speed dating experience retrofitted with funhouse literary mirrors.
I tried not to steal peeks at the next woman over both because it was rude to the woman I was speaking with and because I wanted every meeting to be a surprise with a genuine response, not performed or calculated. Though, Reader, I tell you, my naïve ambition became difficult to maintain as I stood up to move on to Calliope of the Marx babies, then Babette, who had the air of a cigarette-smoking beauty queen, and Anne, and Hazel, and Lizzy, and my consciousness of the fact that the more I repeated myself in response to the same questions, the less sincere I became, our comedian hosts droning on, their voices insistent, their words incomprehensible, the face presently across from me feeling more and more like a test-marketing subject for a new product which was My Projected Self. Shame at projections gone awry sloughed away as new conversation played immediately over old, like a new album in place of last year’s, with Daisy, who wondered whether or not she ought to read The Corrections, and Margaret Peel, who was significantly older and to whom I said I was probably not the guy she imagined meeting that evening, but what about her make-believe name, its literary origin? (Lucky Jim, she explained, our organizers having conflated her favorite author, Martin Amis, with his father, Kingsley, then named her after a character in Kingsley Amis’s most famous novel, a novel she had never read…although I had, I was reminded then), and Isabel, whose expression was like a runner’s in the early miles of a race, and finally, Estha, of the anchor tattoo and lovable Brooklyn restaurant.
One thing about capitalism, I have noticed, is that its appeal is never stronger than in the aftermath of a breakup, love spilling forth from the vessel that shaped it, all that energy and longing to be known and to know in turn seeking new forms to cleave to, things that did not previously define you. Conceivably a human being could live this way forever, making bonds, breaking bonds, and reaching out through expenditures of concentration and will to take on more trappings, assume other forms, a kind of perennial runaway from the prurience of small-town gossip and stifling judgment, glorying in the purity of the new.
There is what we forget and what we remember, and I cannot say for certain how accurately I have recalled an event now seven months distant, or where fiction, despite conscious intention, has blurred the edges of fact and so made them softer, the facts, but thematically more concentrated, molding from a chaos of temporarily overlapping paths something that reads as almost retraceable. A moment of possible return.
To find yourself speed dating is to acknowledge, at least to yourself, not without humor, a waywardness of romantic course, to become increasingly conscious of yourself as an advertisement for yourself, a mercurial herald, as you move from one table to the next, one consciousness and then another and another flitting by image-saturated eyes. In your remove, the recognitions you have but don’t speak, a story begins to build, refined by each new face, each curious glance, the unspoken attempt to find a hold in the world everyone shares. It is almost possible to believe that the world consists entirely of surfaces and that the ones presently before us are the only we will ever know.
If it is true that capitalism is the final organizing principle humanity will ever know, the snaking tables around which we are to carousel forever, but not just capitalism in the abstract, but this capitalism, where big companies merge with big companies, big publishers with big publishers — the fewer meaningful players on the field, the less actual competition, the closer our capitalism resembles Soviet Russia, a state ruled by one all-encompassing company whose elite direct the bureaucratic circus — then I might have been seeing symptoms in the material conditions of the speed dating scene, or the shape the material conditions gave my sense of self, those of us on the carousel that night in February. As we passed each other by, our personalities become weightless, the stories inside the books we carried felt more and more real.
Image Credit: Flickr/Alan O’Rourke
Recently, I watched an Iranian, an Italo-Palestinian, and an American Jew take the stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, backed by a string quartet. There’s a punch line in there somewhere. (A reporter for the Village Voice quipped, “Even Rush Limbaugh couldn’t make up a funnier parody of what Upper East Side Manhattanites do on a Tuesday night.”) “Exit Strategies” was one of the first events of this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and its participants, Marjane Satrapi, Rula Jabreal, and Tony Kushner, would repeatedly and somewhat apologetically call it an “experiment.” The Kronos Quartet — never a group to back down from an experiment — was meant to play pretty much nonstop, as the writers spoke with (or over) them. Kushner had the most success, reading a poem about grief and working with the cadences of the music. Satrapi talked about the moment the world’s view of Iran shifted from princes and flying carpets to riots and religious extremists; she was improvising warmly but apprehensively, which left her occasionally shouting past the quartet. But Jabreal barely acknowledged the musicians at all, determined to deliver a cavalcade of political talking points: the wars, corruption in Washington, the health-care crisis, and the Republican primary field, all dredged up for a clearly liberal audience that probably never wanted to hear about Michele Bachmann again.
It was a strange night. The Village Voice reporter likened the Kronos Quartet to the band on the sinking Titanic, but it wasn’t as bad as all that — and he admitted as much, too. It was definitely an experiment, interesting at times, nerve-wracking at others, but the thing that struck me was the conversational clash that followed, like when Jabreal asked Satrapi what she thought the 2012 election looked like outside the United States, as the quartet plowed on in the background, and a clearly frustrated Satrapi said that she was elated by the music — and really wasn’t interested in talking about Mitt Romney. The declaration earned her the biggest applause of the night.
They both had fair points: the event was ostensibly about music; the program didn’t promise a dissection of American politics. But it was an opportunity for two Middle Eastern women to talk about their vantages from abroad, specifically from such cosseted places as Iran and Palestine — views that are a fair bit harder to find than most in the American literary landscape. This was the seventh annual PEN World Voices Festival, which brings together writers from around the world to, according to this year’s introduction, “celebrate the power of the written word in action.” It purports the values of PEN itself, whose charter states that: “Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.”
PEN World Voices is one of the foremost international literary events in New York City, a place that, as the center of American publishing and home to a basically alarming number of writers, looks inward — celebrates the local, perhaps — more often than not. I’m as guilty as any of literary jingoism: I attend maybe one reading per week in Brooklyn or Manhattan, and it may be partly my own fault, but the writers I encounter nearly always hail from the Anglophone world, whether they’re native-born or have emigrated here or to the UK. Most of the authors I read fall into the same category. The topics I’m interested in, the regions in which I’d like to see a story set — all of these fall within the confines of English-speaking lands. And I think this is probably a personal failing. Maybe I don’t need to know how Mitt Romney comes off in Iran. But so little writing from the vast majority of the world penetrates the American literary scene, and my own personal literary scene. It’s an age-old complaint, but things don’t really seem to be changing. You can seek out literature from just about anywhere — and now it’s easier than any previous point in history — but it’s a hell of a lot harder to bring it into the conversation.
There’s that famous and damning statistic: translated works make up just three percent of the American book market (and, in contrast, sixty percent of all the translated literature in the world comes from English). The University of Rochester, who named their translated literature site, Three Percent, after the fact, suggests that when narrowed down to literary fiction and poetry, the number drops to a paltry 0.7 percent. There contemporary notable exceptions, from genre (Stieg Larsson and the European crime-novelist wave that has sprung up in his stead) to mega-bestsellers (Paulo Coelho, Umberto Eco) to the literary masters (Gabriel García Márquez, Orhan Pamuk, José Saramago, and a handful of others) that have become permanent fixtures in our canon. And of course there are the hippest of the modern-day literary heavyweights, Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolaño. But the majority of translated literature remains largely obscure, lauded in niches within the publishing and reading worlds but failing to impact the broader public.
The translation question is an old and thorny one. Foreign books, anecdotal wisdom suggests, are a big gamble: “There’s a general perception in the trade that these books can be difficult to sell,” one publisher told the Guardian. “As long as that persists it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Reading in translation is often a tricky prospect: the conflict between readability and remaining faithful to the original language lies at the heart of the ethics of translation. Look at the line-by-line differences between Murakami’s translators, Jay Rubin, Alfred Birnbaum, and Phillip Gabriel. Some passages are wildly different, clunky with too-literal translations, or, on the other end of the spectrum, full of Western idioms and surprisingly liberal interpretations of Murakami’s words. It leaves the reader in translation feeling a little distrustful, and inadequate. I can’t imagine learning Japanese — I only got past high-school level French!
And perhaps part of the trouble is that translation means more than replacing a word with its foreign equivalent: there’s a broader cultural undercurrent at work when we talk about Americans and international literature, a question of how a book will read on this side of the Atlantic. Take, for example, Tim Parks’ diatribe against Jonathan Franzen and Freedom, from the New York Review of Books about a year ago. He begins with an absurd press release from the American publisher of Thomas Pletzinger, a German novelist: “Pletzinger is German, but you wouldn’t know it from his debut, which is both wise and worldly.” Parks is incredulous:
What a wonderful insight this careless moment of blurb-talk gives us into the contemporary American mindset! We want something worldly, but if it seems too German, or perhaps just too foreign, we become wary. As my mailbag indicates, the literary community is very much an international phenomenon, but not, it would seem, a level playing field. To make it in America Pletzinger must shed his German-ness as if he were an immigrant with an embarrassing accent.
Parks quickly moves on to Franzen, whom he accuses of aggressive, list-heavy American-ness: he takes fault with the European fascination with Freedom, saying that there are no Italian words for half of Franzen’s lists, from foosball table to “mechanized recliner.” The Italian translator chimed in, indignant, in the comments, giving exact translations for foosball and La-Z-Boy and insisting that, despite Parks’ claim, the Italian for “mechanized recliner” is just as ugly as the English. But I think that the broader point still stands. Reading The Corrections last year — that’s a solid decade after everyone else read it, which I quickly learned when I tried to discuss it with people — I couldn’t help but feel like all those cultural references were incredibly dated, a lot of otherwise engaging prose weighed down by Y2K-era jargon. Cultural references are tricky, whether they’re traveling across geographical or temporal borders. But is something substantial lost with their removal?
Three Percent is trying to revive May as “World in Translation Month,” and it’s an obviously laudable goal. But it remains to be seen how they — or anyone — can effectively market an entire world of literature that’s still failed to catch on amongst the majority of the American reading public. I’ve seen the attempts: articles, blogs, word-of-mouth from friends or booksellers, offering up blind recommendations, the author’s name, title, and original language, and I don’t know how to parse it. I’m guilty myself: just the other day, halfway through Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure, the first book in translation I’ve read in a long while, I found myself trying to talk about it with a few friends. “He’s Senegalese,” I said. They looked at me expectantly, waiting for something more helpful than nationality. “It’s about colonialism.” They nodded. “It was translated by the woman who did The Little Prince,” I tossed in. “Ah!” one said. A relief: a cultural frame of reference. I give most books a hard sell, but I had so few tools at my disposal, reading a Senegalese book translated from French half a century ago, and fault here lies with me, not with Kane, whose book is extraordinary and subtle and philosophical and unlike anything else I’ve read about the colonial experience, which, coming from a person who essentially majored in postcolonialism, is saying something.
Ambiguous Adventure is part of a Melville House series called the Neversink Library, which “champions books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored.” I’m taking that last designation to heart. There’s a danger in become too prescriptive with foreign literature: we should be reading it, that it’s good for us, that it’s our duty as citizens of the world to read books from every corner of it. The Neversink project seems to offer an antidote to that: titles carefully chosen and offered up with the simple explanation that these books are so good they never should have slipped past or from the public consciousness. All good books transcend the place and time in which they were written: the whole point is to write something specific that becomes universal, after all. So perhaps the best way to transcend the barriers of international literature is to no longer market it as such. A good book is a good book. We need to read more in translation — and we simply need to read more. Maybe dropping all of these labels is a good place to start.
As both a reader and a book collector, I’m a big fan of college library book sales. Held annually or bi-annually at colleges and universities across the country, these sales convert library discards and unwanted donations into desperately needed funds. Uncluttered by the kinds of books that glut public library sales, the college library book sale paints an interesting picture of town-gown reading habits.
When I had the opportunity to attend The Friends of the Library Used Book Sale at the State University of New York in New Paltz, I tried to get there as early as possible, knowing that ambitious local booksellers and scouts would arrive when the door opened at 8:00 a.m. Not that I was necessarily looking for an overlooked first edition (although applying my esoteric knowledge about books and collecting for profit would be fun). Lest you think that the tables were filled with the fifth edition of the MLA Handbook, I will declare up front that I did find one such diamond in the rough — a first edition of Dwight Macdonald’s Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture in a Brodart-enclosed dust jacket (always a good sign). The book was not an ex-library copy — a red flag for collectors, but not readers — and because I had studied the book in graduate school, I knew not only its academic value, but also its scarcity on the market. I had purchased my own copy about ten years ago, settling for a yellowing, faded paperback, which still sits on my shelves. It’s not a find that will make me rich, but if I chose to sell it, I could buy five New York Times bestsellers in hardcover.
I found an uncanny number of books at this sale that I would have purchased had I not already owned a copy, such as Philip Slater’s The Pursuit of Loneliness, a classic of the American counterculture movement; or, David Denby’s 1997 tirade about preserving the Western canon, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World; or David Lodge’s superb satire, The British Museum is Falling Down. I should have bought that last one anyway, my copy is badly worn. A hardcover of Johnny Tremain, the story of a young silversmith apprentice in Revolutionary America, caught my eye, but again, I had one in similar condition at home. I read this book in seventh grade and recall it now as one of the books that made me like reading and learning about history.
When I noticed a copy of Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, I felt a pang of sadness and wondered whether this amazing work — one I relied on heavily in graduate school — cast off in such a way means that Jane Tompkins is no longer a staple in English and history departments. Surely that can’t be the case; it was just being passed along to a new generation of scholars, and some young English major will adopt it. It’s hard to believe that Tompkins published that book twenty-five years ago.
There are always some textbooks mingled into the college library book sale, and at this one, I also spotted a book of literary terms quite like the one I bought when I was in high school. The fiction struck me as exquisitely cerebral. The Well of Loneliness, a 1928 novel by Radclyffe Hall, was the subject of censorship and banning when it was first published in the U.S. Though critics felt it beautifully written, its lesbian content was impossible to overlook. This novel is found on the syllabi of women’s studies and sociology courses; I wrote a paper on it in a class on the history of propaganda. In more modern (but literary) fiction, A. S. Byatt’s Babel Tower, a novel set in bookish 1960s England, and Mark Helprin’s Freddy and Fredericka, a surreal critique of nobility, almost came home with me. (Both authors are highly enjoyable, thought provoking, and, admittedly demanding.) When I spied the fine dust jacket of Joyce Carol Oates’ You Must Remember This, I thought I might have another treasure in my hands. Alas, it turned out to be a book club edition (red flag!).
Dare I call these selections highbrow? Is this what the intellectual elite reads? What would Macdonald say — that academics are still valiantly resisting “masscult”? (It would help explain the dearth of Da Vinci Codes at this sale.) Would he categorize them as “high art” or, more likely, “midcult” — i.e., watered-down “high art”? Three of the novelists cited above were, at some point, Book-of-the-Month Club picks, of which Macdonald writes, “Midcult is the Book-of-the-Month-Club, which since 1926 has been supplying its members with reading matter of which the best that can be said is that it could be worse.” (Byatt’s most popular novel, Possession, was a BOMC selection. It also won the Man Booker Prize. Having read it, I’d be hard-pressed to call it lite literature.)
What did I end up buying at the SUNY sale, aside from old Macdonald? Only one other book: a Modern Library edition of The Collected Short Stories of Dorothy Parker. I enjoy the handy format of older ML editions, and this one retained its jacket in good condition, which is always a plus. This slim volume will fit nicely on the shelves I’ve devoted to Parker and the Algonquin Round Table. Modern Library, a publisher known throughout the twentieth century for its reprints of so-called classics, is often spotted at college library sales, as are some of the other classic reprinters; I recognized several World’s Classics at the New Paltz sale.
My husband found two books to take home that day — one, a professional monograph on voice and diction (his area of expertise) and the other a book called The Winter Beach by Charlton Ogburn Jr., a blend of memoir and natural history strikingly similar to the Henry Beston classic, The Outermost House, that he admires.
I brooded over what it says about me as a reader that my tastes are so easily reflected here on the tables outside a college library. But then, who cares what it says about me — what’s more significant is what it reinforces about campus reading. First and foremost, it says that physical books aren’t dead! The sale was packed — with students. Secondly, it manifests our common academic purpose in a liberal arts education — to read and think broadly and seriously in areas like sociology, history, and modern literature. Finally, it shows wide (concentric) participation in the stimulating circle of readership. Books at college library sales generally are not rare, collectible, or even particularly well cared for, but they are read, studied, assigned, highlighted, underlined, bought, sold, and loved (or hated) by students, professors, and college-town locals, and that is encouraging indeed.
Image credit: UofSLibrary/Flickr
Overwhelming and underwhelming: that’s the phrase that some bloggers and I settled upon to describe this massive event. It’s overwhelming in the sense that it is truly massive (as any big industry trade show must be), with endless rows and rows of booths where publishers big, small, (and self-) hawk their wares. There is a seemingly endless spray of people flowing into the giant exhibition floor from all entry points, and you are jostled constantly as you thread through the crowds. On top of this there are wacky promotions going on at nearly every juncture – an author dressed up like an Elizabethan princess, dancing dogs and grannies wearing matching outfits, a balloon animal sculptor – along with lots of promotional freebies being thrust at passersby who must also avoid the snaking lines of people waiting to see some personality or another signing books at a publisher booth. The independent row felt like a safe haven – much less crowded and populated by less frenzied folks. But it was underwhelming too in that the interactions I have with some of these folks over email already are far more valuable than the hurried face to face meetings that end up happening at this event. While the Expo itself is an exercise in endurance, the parties that came after – including the LBC affair – were much more fun and relaxed. But more on that later, I need to get downtown to dive in again. I’ll wrap things up with a more detailed report – including my finally meeting so many great bloggers whose blogs I read daily – by the end of the weekend.
When Sarah Vowell comes to town, she brings with her the oddest bunch of Puritans you’ve ever met. Sometimes cruel, often endearing, highly literate (for a pre-Enlightenment society), occasionally confounding in their contradictions, the Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s come to life in Vowell’s latest historical slice of arcane Americana.The Wordy Shipmates reveals Anne Hutchinson as a headstrong Puritan guru who enraged the Puritan leaders by claiming that God spoke directly to her – blasphemy to the Puritans who don’t believe in that kind of revelation. It spotlights Roger Williams as a banished, tormented, confrontational colonist who is “hard to like but easy to love.” The core of the book, however, is John Winthrop, the governor who took the parting sermon of John Cotton in which Cotton tells “these about-to-be-Americans” in inspiring language that “they are God’s new chosen people” and governs the new colony accordingly, helping to sow the seeds of American exceptionalism which would go beyond colonists spreading God’s word to the natives, and would ultimately permeate U.S. foreign policy in the centuries to come.John Winthrop’s own sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” calls on New England to be “as a city upon a hill” – a beacon of righteousness. As Vowell puts it, the “worldview behind that motto – we’re here to help, whether you want our help or not – is the Massachusetts Puritans’ most enduring bequest to the future United States.” But the same sermon also outlines a more humble notion of America. Vowell writes: “Dig deep into its communitarian ethos and it reads more like an America that might have been, an America fervently devoted to the quaint goals of working together and getting along. Of course, this America does exist. It’s called Canada.”Sarah Vowell read this passage to a packed and adoring crowd here in Toronto as part of the recent International Authors Festival. We’re a strange bunch, we Canadians. Virtually every day of the year we keep our national pride under wraps, shying away from overt acts of flag-waving, hooting-and-hollering patriotism. But put us in a theatre in downtown Toronto, bring in an erudite and thoughtful writer, and if she heaps even the slightest praise upon Canada, we’re in heaven. More so if it’s an American doing the praising. To us. Out loud. That “Canada” line brought down the house.Of course that line is an amusing throwaway, but it has a germ of truth at least when it comes to national self-perception. Vowell’s reading at the festival was followed by a lengthy conversation with writer and broadcaster Ian Brown who suggested that America sees itself on a journey, following a visionary course – a destiny, while we Canadians are more concerned with “whether we have enough parsnips in the basement” to get through the long winter.In The Wordy Shipmates, Vowell frequently breaks the narrative to offer some trenchant opinions of how the two halves of the Winthrop sermon have grown further apart over the centuries. For all their rousing talk of America as a beacon on a hill, many leaders have overlooked the more modest ideals that could be drawn from the same sermon. Vowell takes a mallet and smashes the rose-colored glasses through which many people have been gazing back at Ronald Reagan’s terms in office. One of the most vocal co-opters of the “city-on-a-hill” mantra, Reagan’s eloquent Winthropian language and his grandfatherly demeanor masks the treatment (or rather, neglect) of the already-marginalized in America during his watch.A ray of hope, though. The book was written, and the reading was given, before the recent election. Which changes things, I think, as President-elect Obama seems, in these transitional days anyway, to be that rarest of things – a leader who combines reason and pragmatism and a sense of a community pulling together, with spirited language and an inspiring delivery. The beacon on a hill appears to be shining a bit more brightly.Some other Sarah Vowell-isms from the interview:On the almighty buck: At one point interviewer Ian Brown reached for a bottle of water, took a swig, and then uttered the name of the brand. To which Vowell jokingly chided Brown for giving the bottler an unsolicited, unpaid plug, saying “you Canadians will just give it away for free.”On her preoccupation with subcultures: Vowell admitted her lifelong obsession with groups, the more unruly the better. From Goths to Puritans, she’s fascinated by their habits whether that means wearing too much make-up or spreading salvation in colonial Massachusetts.On why U.S. history is more far more interesting than Canadian history: “Canadians are superior human beings,” Vowell said (to huge applause), adding: “and thus nothing ever happens.”On restraint: “I have a policy where I’m trying not to swear,” Vowell told us, “and I open the newspaper in the morning and I’m like a gangsta rapper who stubbed his toe.”On the separation of church and state: “It’s on the books,” Vowell assured us, all the while frustrated that vocal and sometimes powerful groups try to pretend that it’s not.On research: Vowell spent ages sifting through volume after volume of admittedly dull Puritan writing. “I do quote from the juicier bits of Puritan writing for you… and you’re welcome.”On Jon Stewart: Vowell, in addition to her books and contributions to This American Life on NPR, is a frequent guest on the hip late-night circuit, particularly The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. She was asked what he was really like. “A six-foot-tall black man,” Vowell quipped. And I thought the camera just added ten pounds! On a serious note, Vowell said that Stewart’s humor is derived from a core of sadness, of frustration with misuse of power.On Pixar: Vowell also made a lasting impression as the voice of Violet in The Incredibles. She has a high regard for Pixar, and applauds the animation studio for using “every aspect of the medium for meaning.”On superheroes and their powers: During the Q and A, Vowell was asked by an audience member what her ideal superpower would be. To which she replied: “Always being well-rested.”On meeting me: While waiting in line to have Vowell sign my copy of her latest book, an organizer worked her way through the queue writing each of our names in big block letters on a little yellow post-it notes and sticking them in the books, at the proper spot. When I found myself in front of Sarah Vowell, after exchanging pleasantries, she looked at my name, and, stunned by the unprecedented and unexpected number of Andrews ahead of me in the line, she asked: “Do all Canadians name their sons Andrew?”. We both laughed. “I guess there’s a lot of us,” I quipped, adding: “And I wasn’t even born here!” We both tossed our heads back and laughed some more. She then added, without missing a beat, “But you fit right in.”