Vowell sounds

April 12, 2007

One of the benefits of living in a university community is a rich range of cultural events – lectures, recitals, and so on. Okay, so most of the time my appreciation of these opportunities is theoretical, as I’ve decided to sit on the couch and make fun of David Caruso’s acting in reruns of CSI: Miami. (Seriously, he’s like watching Danny Kaye try his hand at film noir.) But even I can be motivated to pry myself off the couch from time to time, and a lecture by Sarah Vowell was more than lure enough.

Vowell is an essayist and radio commentator. I first encountered her on National Public Radio pushing her book, Take the Cannoli. She struck me as a less self-involved David Sedaris (not that his self-involvement is bad – it’s just that it’s inspired too many inferior imitators), and I enjoyed the book a lot. I caught her from time to time on NPR’s This American Life, and I really loved her third book, Assassination Vacation. Like Sedaris, she’s got a funny voice and a wry sense of humor, but unlike Sedaris, she has expansive interests and peculiar but illuminating obsessions. In other words, she’s a big geek, which makes her barbed perceptiveness all the more appealing.

Last night’s audience was almost precisely what you’d expect – liberals and graduate students, gathered to pay tribute to our nerd princess. She did not disappoint. Her extemporaneous speaking is as delightful as her writing. (Any evening that concludes with a detailed differentiation between apathy and quiet despair is my kind of evening.) When asked who her current presidential candidate of choice was, she thought for a moment and said, “Gee, I’m just so un-picky these days.”

For whatever reason, I’d passed over The Partly Cloudy Patriot, but the opportunity to get it signed was too good to pass up. It proved, yet again, that I should not be allowed near any level of celebrity, because I always get weird when I actually interact with them. But hey, I have an autographed book by one of my favorite essayists, and I’m sure she wasn’t too alarmed by my complete lack of social skills.

One thing – I can understand the desire of professors to expand their students’ horizons by requiring them to attend events like this. And maybe a small handful of them come away better informed and more curious than they were before. But for the most part, no one is happy with this arrangement. The students are clearly unhappy, judging by their sighing, talking and compulsive peeks at their cellular phones to see if that undoubtedly life-changing text message has arrived at last. And the people who attended the event in question are unhappy if they have the bad fortune of sitting next to the students and are forced to try and tune out their ostentatious ennui. Just make them watch a video in class, or something.

But back to Vowell. Wikipedia has a terrific collection of audio and video links to her appearances on various radio and television programs. If you listen to only one, make it this episode of This American Life, where she confesses to actually enjoying marching band (see? big geek!) in a performance that led David Sedaris to insist that “She must be destroyed.” Oh, and she said her next book will be about the Puritans. I can’t wait.