I read a whole book by myself! It was The Partly-Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell. It left me feeling strangely disconcerted. Here’s where I explain why:
1) It made me feel stupid. Not ignorant, but stupid. And she’s got a whole essay about Bush vs. Gore that re-iterates a basic truth: people don’t like to feel stupid, and the popular perception of Gore as an arrogant nerd is what cost him the election. The book isn’t arrogant, but for me it was still a reminder that there’s a lot I don’t know about history, politics, and current events.
I’ve accepted for a while that there’s plenty about politics of which I’m completely ignorant, but I’ve always rationalized it away. “Those people just travel in different circles than I do.” “I can’t watch the news because I get liberal outrage fatigue too quickly.” “I know enough about the key issues to make an informed vote, but leave the details to the people who are more interested in the finer points.” Those excuses are seeming more and more hollow. It’s not just that I don’t know about current events, but I can’t. Most of it just doesn’t make sense to me.
And this book keeps me from using the nerd excuse. I can’t say that the parts of my brain that I could devote to knowing the intricacies of the Karl Rove scandal and the background of the Iraq invasion and its key players, are instead devoted to scripting languages and C++ template syntax and tech trees in World of Warcraft. Because there are plenty of people who know more about that stuff than I do, and can remember the name of the current Attorney General.
2) It made me feel that my time is running out. Even if I did resolve to get more up to speed with what’s going on in the world, I don’t know how I’d be able to do it. It was one thing when I could point to work and say that that was taking up all my time, but now I can’t even do that, and I still don’t have enough time. I can’t even reliably say where it’s all going — I’m contracting now, so I can now point to the block of time I spent today working on the project. But the rest is a mystery. Is it possible I keep getting abducted by aliens? Can you be narcoleptic and not realize it?
My friend Moe was complaining that he needed to get rid of his television altogether, because he spent way too much time watching news programs on cable. The thing I kept wondering was how did he even find the time to spend that much time watching news?
3) It made me feel nostalgic. Not in the heartwarming sense, but the claustrophobic “I remember what things used to be like, and that time is completely lost to me forever” walls-closing-in sense of dread. I can remember a time when I would’ve read this book and identified with every essay. I used to be like that — nerdy and self-deprecating while still being idealistic, always balancing passion about an issue and cynical detachment. Now, though, much of the book just strikes me as trite. It gets better towards the end, as she goes deeper into her subjects, but for a lot I just kept hitting phrases that made me think, “typical self-absorbed shallow liberal sense of entitlement.” Which is odd, because I’m a typical self-absorbed shallow liberal with a sense of entitlement, so how come I can no longer relate?
4) Even though I know what Vowell’s voice sounds like, I kept hearing it as if it were read by my friend Emily. They strike me as remarkably similar except Vowell’s more on the fence about Canada. Actually, there’s a whole essay in which she (Vowell) describes how Americans perceive Canadians, and I thought she was right on the money — basically, they have less in their history to be ashamed of, but less to be proud of either. She paints them as a whole nation of polite and cultured people who don’t take risks. Which may sound disparaging, but is better than the usual answer to “What do Americans really think of Canadians?” “We don’t.”
I don’t think the book was perfect, and I wasn’t completely won over. But I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t supposed to be won over, because the book isn’t trying to persuade its readers of anything. It’s just Vowell making sometimes insightful observations and speaking with her own voice. And that voice is great to have out there, if only as an alternative to the polarized, partisan nonsense.
Vowell can describe how she cried all through the Bush inauguration without the whole piece sounding like an attack, but instead a fair analysis of the state of American politics as perceived by the public. She defends Americans’ love of goofing off and being capitalist consumers with no sense of excess but also no sense of guilt; the whole point of “the pursuit of happiness” is that the good life is possible, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of because we work to make it happen.
And she can be fiercely patriotic without its coming across as empty rhetoric, but instead a sincere belief (she describes it as her own religion) that America is the ideal, and it’s up to us to make it work. That idea — that we’re not Americans by accident of our birth, but because of our actions and our beliefs, and that that is what’s worth defending and keeping honest — that’s something we all need to be reminded of.