Sarah Vowell: Standing Room Only at the Brooklyn Public Library


“I only have one ticket left,” says Meredith Walters, Manager of Adult Programs at the Brooklyn Public Library, to the couple standing in front of me. The last purple stub to get in was for a chance to watch NPR contributor/history nerd Sarah Vowell read from her new book via a monitor–not even actually be in the room; that had long filled up. “I’m alone,” I say matter-of-factly, assuming that that sentiment alone would tip me into the last coveted spot. “I’m alone, too,” the older man said, with a sheepish laugh. His wife stood there flabbergasted, and then somewhat defeated, asked, “Can I get the bike key?”

Walters tells us that was it: no more are coming in, fire codes have to be kept in place, and that we should all come back at some point because the library really is a great place to do stuff besides get books and drop your kids off. Moments later, the wife-ditcher comes back out the door and hands me his stub–he’d neglected to listen to the fact that at this point, we were just being granted access to a TV screen, nothing more. Thus, with a little luck I was somehow in the biggest event of Saturday afternoon at Grand Army Plaza now that the Farmers’ Market had shut down for the day.

If Vowell knew about her massive demand, one would never know. She walked in the room, head down, and immediately launched into reading chunks from the beginning of The Wordy Shipmates, her most recent ode to kooky puritan New England. As on radio, her high-pitched, mousey voice deadpanned jokes about the Pope as a whore of Babylon alongside a well-placed bit on Canada’s appropriation of America’s original creed–to work together and get along. But after her explanation of how she found comfort in the words of Puritan extraordinaire John Winthrop after the 9/11 attacks (prompting her to help rescue workers by bringing them tubes of Sensodyne), she finally broke away and stated flat out: “This book is my explanation of why I care about these people.” It’s rare you find a Puritan advocate these days.

During the Q&A session, someone asked when she developed her sense of irony. “I didn’t talk much until I got into college,” she confessed. “I got a job at the Pickle Barrel, which is a sandwich shop,” where she found herself surrounded by a bevy of sarcastic workers, ultimately bringing her out of her shell. After revealing her favorite aspect about the Roger Williams/James Winthrop feud (their “frenemy” factor), Vowell says her next project is looking at 19th Century Hawaii. While she couldn’t elaborate on too many details, like all good historians, she seemed enthused with the idea of bringing that island’s forgotten drama to the masses–detectable even through the dull glow of a flatscreen TV. —Michael D. Ayers

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