Thursday, October 1, 2009

Favorite Passages: Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell

I love Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation, her travelogue about the history, places, and people surrounding presidential assassinations. I don't really know why. Maybe I'm fonder of violence and bloodshed than I admit, or maybe I just really like how Sarah Vowell can turn just about anything into an exciting history fact. It could also be my strange obsession with President McKinley's sad-sack assassin, Leon Czolgosz. Whatever the reason, it's one of my favorite books to go back to every year or two because it's so full of humor and adventure and weird American history. I even love the book so much that I own both the hardcover copy AND the audio version, which is full of guest stars reading the actual words of famous figures, like Stephen King as Abraham Lincoln and Conan O'Brien as his son, Robert Todd.

For the last couple weeks, I've been listening to said audiobook while I get ready in the morning. I can hear all about he assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley while I put on my make-up and straighten my hair. It will probably take me another few weeks to finish the CDs (there are 6 of them, all about 72 minutes apiece). It's a lovely way to wake myself up and learn something in the morning. Yesterday, as I prepared for an interview, I listened to Vowell talk about President Garfield's love of reading and his desire for extra leisure time. Today, when I started my first day of my new (and hopefully brief) job, I was reminded of Garfield. I like having a job. It gets me out of the house, and I like being able to pay off bills and save some money as much as the next person. But no matter what job I do, I never value it as much as I value my reading time. Maybe that's a backwards way to look at life, but that's just how it is for a hard-core reader such as myself. Jobs are a necessary evil (at least, until I get my MFA and become a professor, which is what I actually want to do). But reading is the stuff of my life; it's why I get up in the morning and look forward to going home at night. And no one agreed with this more than Garfield. So in the spirit of book geeks everywhere, here's some talk about Garfield and his book-mania. By the way, in the audio book, President Garfield is played by Jon Stewart.

From Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell:

Garfield's diaries are low-key; I doubt even he would have read them, and he read everything. What passes for dramatic conflict is witnessing him, during his tenure in the House, fidget through congressional committee meetings when the only place he wants to be is holed up with his new twenty-six volume shipment of the complete works of Goethe. He tries to cheer himself up about the political and personal hassles keeping him from German poetry, writing, "Perhaps that study of literature is fullest which we steal from daily duties."

If there is a recurring theme in Garfield's diaries it's this: I'd rather be reading. That might sound dull and perfunctory, but Garfield's book fever was a sickness. Take, for example, the commencement address he delivered at his alma mater Hiram College in the summer of 1880. Traditionally, these pep talks to college graduates are supposed to shove young people into the future with a briefcase bulging with infinitive verbs: to make, to produce, to do. Mr. Loner McBookworm, on the other hand, stands up and breaks it to his audience, the future achievers of America, that the price of the supposedly fulfilling attainment of one's personal and professional dreams is the irritiating way it cuts into one's free time. He tells them,

It has occured to me that the thing you have, that all men have enough of, is perhaps the thing you care for the least, and that is your leisure - the leisure you have to think; the leisure you have to be let alone; the leisure you have to throw the plummet into your mind, and sound the depth and dive for things below.

The only thing stopping this address from turning into a slacker parable is the absence of the word "dude." Keep in mind that at that moment Garfield was a presidential candidate. The guy who theoretically wants the country's most demanding, hectic, brain-dive-denying job stands before these potential gross national product producers, advising them to treat leisure "as your gold, as your wealth, as your treasure." As Garfield left the podium, every scared kid in the room could probably hear the sound of the stock market crashing him back to his old room at his parents' house where he'd have plenty of free time to contemplate hanging himself with his boyhood bedsheets.

As for me, coming across that downbeat commencement speech was the first time I really liked Garfield. It's hard to have strong feelings about him. Before, I didn't mind him, and of course I sympathized with his bum luck of a death. But I find his book addiction endearing, even a little titillating considering that he would sneak away from the house and the House to carry on a love affair with Jane Austen. In his diary he raves about an afternoon spent rearranging his library in a way that reminds me of the druggy glow you can hear in Lou Reed's voice on "Heroin."

Upstairs at the house in Mentor [Garfield's Ohio home], Allison [the tour guide] shows me Garfield's private office. She says, "This is where he liked to retreat, maybe at the end of the day, when he needed to get away from campaign life and children and everything. He would come in here and read."

She points at a lopsided armchair, says Garfield had it "specially made for him. He would lean his back up against the high side of the chair and flip his legs over the low side." It's an appealing image, our respectable presidential paragon slouched in a posture with all the decorum of a teenager plopped on top of a beanbag.

Happy Reading, all my Loner McBookworms!

1 comment:

  1. 1) I love Sarah Vowell! I was actually reading an article for a class last week and found myself wondering... "where have I heard of this guy before?" Turns out I'd heard about him in The Partly Cloudy Patriot, as SV wrote about her stint working for him in an essay! Crazy.

    2) Yay/Boo about the job. Yay for the money aspect, boo for the less reading time bit. Oh, life.

    3) I miss you!

    4) HOCKEY!