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Sarah Vowell Discussed the Constitution, Hate Speech, and That Guy in Charge on Oct. 9th

Sarah Vowell is an author, historian, and social commentator (photo by Owen Brooker)

Sarah Vowell is an author, historian, and social commentator (photo by Owen Brooker)

I check my Twitter app one last time before the lights dim. Just to be sure that my internal political rage is operating on the most recent information. A new insane tweet just came from the “adult day care center” on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But I can’t think about that right now. I’m here to have a good time.

Sponsored by the Durham County Library, Durham Reads Together (DRT) is a communitywide biannual “book club” of sorts. Citizens are encouraged to read and study one book for one month and attend special programs on related topics. This past Monday’s program, presented at The Carolina Theatre of Durham, was An Evening with Sarah Vowell, American Historian, with cartoonist and artisanal pencil sharpener David Rees interviewing her onstage.

The United States Constitution is arguably the most famous historical document in our nation’s history. It does not, however, make for terribly exciting reading. Especially not for a book club. “In all honesty, I had the same initial reaction,” says Durham County Library director Tammy Baggett. “It dawned on me, though, that this is the perfect time and the perfect community to discuss this important document that is the framework of U.S. Law.”

As the executive and legislative branches engage in a tug-of-war at both the federal and state level, the judicial branch tries to ride out the storm and keep a low profile. The constitutional establishment of Separation of Powers is being put to the test, and legislators on both sides of the aisle and their constituents question the constitutionality of our leaders’ day-to-day actions.

The Durham Library Foundation sponsored the free headliner event of this year’s Durham Reads Together: a visit from author, historian, and social commentator Sarah Vowell. She presented her views on the Constitution in an interview format with Chapel Hill, NC native, humorist, and cartoonist David Rees. The wry duo played to a crowd of more than 500 enthusiastic bookworms at Durham’s Carolina Theatre on Monday, Oct. 9th.

Vowell is a New York Times bestselling author of seven nonfiction books — all relating to American history and culture. Her most recognizable title is the essay collection Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World, published in 2000. Her most recent work, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States hit the bookshelves in 2015. She was a contributing editor for Public Radio International’s This American Life from 1996 to 2008, where she produced many radio documentaries.

Vowell is abnormal in the world of historical commentary. She values amusing anecdotes and bizarre stories over farreaching biographies. In 2011, The Washington Post described her as “more David Sedaris than David McCullough.” Her sharp intellect and droll delivery were immediately present on Monday night.

Host David Rees managed to speak two full sentences before Vowell jumped in with a piece of historical trivia. Any expectation of an easy-going, humorous, anecdote-filled evening was immediately dashed with Rees’s first question: “What is the U.S. Constitution, and why is it important?”

Sarah Vowell launched into a detailed explanation as to why the Constitution was written in the first place. “It was written by a bunch of guys who didn’t want to pay their taxes,” she said, adding “Our complete and total stinginess has always defined us as a people.”

The interview format allowed Vowell and Rees to bounce ideas back and forth, and make some humorous observations here and there. But mostly this was a guest lecture on the establishment and application of this 230-year-old, 8,000-word document and its 27 amendments. Civics 101 was certainly a prerequisite for full appreciation of the event. The bookish Vowell seemed at home with this crowd of library-card carriers; her references to Thoreau and Melville were met with nods, not scratched heads.

Recent controversies were referenced indirectly. Rees asked about the United States Flag Code, but there was no mention of the NFL or #takeaknee. Vowell did not mince words about the First Amendment: “Much of what passes for free speech is repugnant,” without mentioning Charlottesville or the Ku Klux Klan specifically.

Rees did get right to the point, asking the audience directly: “Who thinks Silent Sam should stay where it is?” I subtly turned my head to find only two raised hands in the sea of 500. Gerrymandering was brought up, but was cut off in favor of a catastrophic Q&A session that served only to reinforce the fact that white men love to hear themselves talk.

The practice of American Argumentation was called into question. Are our manners of debate and “discussion” productive anymore? Sarah Vowell argues that debate is important, but points out that “Obviously, the best idea doesn’t always win.” She is generally optimistic about the resilience of our Constitution, though Rees describes our current political modus operandi as a “Constitutional stress-test.”

Throughout the presentation, and the useless Q&A session, there was a very large elephant in the room. A bombastic, rage-tweeting, golfing elephant. References to hate speech, the conservatism of yore, qualifications for leadership, the need for understanding and positive discourse, and our crumbling separation-of-powers system were all presented with a deep eye-roll from both speakers. Vowell even referred to the disgusting behaviors of the “Republican presidential candidate” of last year.

His name was certainly thought of more than it was spoken. In fact, it was not spoken once during the entire event. This was in part amazing and in part a relief. Speaking in generalities did prevent us from digging into something really meaningful about He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. But I was happy to spend 90 minutes in Sarah Vowell’s America, where we still have freedom of the press, where the Union still won the war, where we pay our taxes with pride, and where discourse is civil.

I walked back to my car with my freshly signed copy of Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation. I turned on NPR and drove homeward. I really needed to check Twitter.

David Rees is a political cartoonist and artisanal pencil sharpener

David Rees is a political cartoonist and artisanal pencil sharpener

SECOND OPINION: Oct. 5th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Corbie Hill:; and Oct. 4th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Katie Jane Fernelius:

AN EVENING WITH SARAH VOWELL, AMERICAN HISTORIAN, with David Rees (Durham County Library, Oct. 9 at The Carolina Theatre of Durham).

THE EVENT:,,, and


VENUE:,, and


Sarah Vowell (Muskogee, OK-born author, historian, and social commentator): (Steven Barclay Agency bio), (Simon & Schuster bio), (her This American Life contributor page), (Internet Movie Database), (Facebook page), (Twitter page), and (Wikipedia).

David Rees (Chapel Hill, NC-born political cartoonist and artisanal pencil sharpener, nee David Thomas Rees): (official website), (Internet Movie Database), (Facebook page), (Twitter page), and (Wikipedia).



Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor and director. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.

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