January Books Read

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wordy 10 cent.jpg

I started off my 2009 book reading project by reading two off-beat history books by authors who’s previous efforts I really enjoyed. Unfortunately their latest efforts, while decent, were not nearly as compelling nor as fun to read as the earlier books.

A couple of years ago David Hajdu wrote a great book about the early Dylan days in NYC; his relationship with Joan Baez and her sister Mimi, all the way up to Dylan’s motorcycle accident in 1966. It was called Positively 4th Street and I heartedly recommend that book to anyone interested in that particular period of pop culture history.

Hadju’s latest entry, The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America is about the rise of comic books and the intense political pressure they came under in the 1920s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. The 1950s witch hunt lead to the Comic Book Code, essentially eviscerating comic books of any relevance, critical, or artistic merit. Hadju gives a good accounting of the players involved and he interviewed a lot of guys (mostly) who went through that period in the 1950s. Maybe it was the subject matter but I found the book a little dry. The worst thing is that there were few pictures, only a small smattering of b&w photos. Given the fact that the horror and weird comic book covers of the time played a large part in political leaders trying to ban comic books, it would have been nice to see some full-color examples of the covers or pages from the comic books he was describing. (to be fair, I noticed on Amazon that there is now a “fully illustrated? version of The 10 Cent Plague. I’m not surprised, the book really needs those comic book examples to make it work).

It is decent book about a time when the governments were seriously considering putting restrictions on freedom of speech and essentially forced the comic book industry to self-regulate itself. However the book could have used a little more spark and liveliness. I am guessing that the new illustrated version is a lot more satisfying.

Sarah Vowell is a regular contributor to This American Life on NPR and a few years ago wrote an amazingly informative and funny book about presidential assassinations called Assassination Vacation. Again highly recommended. Her latest, The Wordy Shipmates, covers the time between 1630 and 1690 and the English Puritans who settled New England, specifically Boston, and eventually Providence and Connecticut.

Vowell uses John Winthrop’s City on the Hill sermon as a jumping off point and thoroughly examines the writings and letters (and these guys wrote a whole lot, thus the title) to give insight to our first settlers and the development of some of the “American? ideals that we still hold dear some 350 years later. Winthrop is contrasted with John Williams who argued for a lot more religious freedom than Winthrop and the Puritans were willing to tolerate. Williams was banished from Boston and he found the City of Providence. Vowell makes a great point: "Winthrop is Pete Seeger, gathering a generation around the campfire to sing their shared folk songs. Williams is Bob Dylan plugging in at Newport, making his own noise."

As you can tell from that last line, Vowell brings attitude to this subject much like she did with Assassination Vacation, it’s just not as page turningly funny. The book is informative and a nice little history of John Winthrop and the first Bostonians, but again the spark is missing. Maybe it’s the dour nature of her subjects, maybe its hard to catch lightning in a bottle twice, or maybe I need more to be impressed, but while I enjoyed the book, instead of urging everyone to read it, like I did AssVac, I would urge caution, suggesting that if you’re looking for a fun, funny read, this book won’t really bring it.

There’s some obvious themes here, the first being that its no wonder that freedom of speech and freedom of religion are in the first amendment to the Constitution (in fact Williams’ Rhode Island progeny insisted on the freedom of religion clause in the 1st Amendment). We have fought for these rights for over 350 years, and sometimes, like with Comic Books in the 1950’s, our ideals are compromised. In the end freedom does win out and we continue to strive for that shining city on the hill.

So that’s it, lots of off-beat history for January. A scholarly look at Alfred Hitchcock’s films is now on top of the bookstand with books about Dylan and Hibbing, Allen Ginsburg, and Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train still to come.

What are you reading?

4 Comments

I thought 10-cent plague looked interesting. If I ever get to it, I'll make sure I get the illustrated version.

I'm currently about halfway through Roberto Bolano's 2666. I don't have much time to read, so it's hard to keep a novel this large in my head all the time. He's a great storyteller though, so the individual parts are pretty interesting even if I haven't got the whole picture just yet.

"Winthrop is Pete Seeger, gathering a generation around the campfire to sing their shared folk songs. Williams is Bob Dylan plugging in at Newport, making his own noise."

that is a hilarious analogy to Winthrop, given his legacy of abuse of political power (see, e.g., Winthrop's abuse of Capt. James Johnson).

I might instead go with Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. :-)

Good comment Brian. Vowell is definitely conflicted by Winthrop: his harsh treatment of Johnson and Anne Hutchinson on one hand and his gentle(r) treatment of Williams and some of ideals on the other.

I feel that elected officials need to do more things like this for the people.

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This page contains a single entry by Freealonzo published on February 3, 2009 5:22 AM.

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