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Vowell of 'American Life' delights MIT audience

NPR commentator Sarah Vowell speaks with students at the Media Lab.
NPR commentator Sarah Vowell speaks with students at the Media Lab.
Photo / Donna Coveney

Author and radio personality Sarah Vowell brought a keen wit and sharp cultural commentary to MIT on Feb. 29, when she read some of her work, fielded questions and discussed her upcoming book about tourism and presidential assassination.

A contributing editor to the public radio program "This American Life," Vowell has written three books of essays on American history, politics and popular culture: "Radio On," "Take the Cannoli" and "The Partly Cloudy Patriot."

"I'm so glad to be here--I love speaking at schools I couldn't have gotten into," Vowell greeted the appreciative capacity crowd in Room 10-250.

Vowell read aloud from several of her published essays on subjects such as the popularity of New German cinema in her hometown of Bozeman, Mont., a visit to the witch-themed attractions in Salem, Mass., a road trip to the 2000 presidential inauguration, and a painful conversation at a New England bed and breakfast. She also made reference to the current presidential race and probable Democratic nominee John Kerry.

"When I hear the phrase 'Massachusetts liberal,' I think of Jonathan Edwards or something," she said, referring to the 18th-century Puritan preacher who is famous for such brimstone sermons as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." "I guess he's kind of unelectable, though."

Vowell said she planned to vote for John Edwards in the Super Tuesday primary two days later, saying she favored him because of his interest in helping families pay for their children to attend college, an issue that had been important to her own family.

"Of course, I'll support Kerry in November, if it comes to that," she added. "But the primary is the place where I feel you can vote your little heart out. Dream a little dream. Vote for Kucinich if you want to."

Asked for her favorite historical site, Vowell named the Lincoln Memorial, and then launched enthusiastically into a discussion of its architectural history. "I love that place," she said. "And everyone I know who's been there loves it. No one's ever like, 'Oh, the Lincoln Memorial? That old shack?'"

Vowell, a self-described "civics geek," explained why it's important that even cynical citizens vote. "People say, isn't voting just [choosing] the lesser of two evils? I say, yes! Less evil is better."

The event was co-sponsored by the Office for the Arts, the Alan Katzenstein Memorial Fund and the Cambridge-based Center for New Words.

The next day, at an informal discussion with a small group of students at the Media Laboratory, Vowell talked in greater detail about her writing style, influences and preferences, admitting that some of her opinions were "old-fashioned."

Reacting to the notion of turning the radio show "This American Life" into a television show, she said, "I don't want pictures getting in the way ... You [Media Lab students] are working on the reader or participant having more interaction. I don't want that at all. I want to decide what you see."

Even e-mail makes her too accessible, she said. "There are fewer boundaries in the world between people. I'm not always comfortable with that."

On the art of humor writing, she said, "If you want to get at the truth, humor is really good at that. I'm definitely of the spoonful-of-sugar approach. It's part of being a good writer. I've gotten better at containing my rage and knowing what to do about it. A gently written joke with a lot of bite can say a lot."

Vowell said her experience at MIT had been "amazing." "Yesterday, people would give me pieces of paper to sign, and they were all graph paper," she said. "I love that--I haven't seen graph paper in years."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 10, 2004.

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