Eternal Sunshine and the Science of the Spotless Mind

I have always been frustrated by the pervasive idea that the brain is like a computer.  In the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries, it became commonplace to suppose that the human mind was just an information processing machine, akin to the Dell or ASUS or Apple product sitting on someone’s desktop. The mind was a repository of data, with files, folders, items, and directories, which could be mapped on to the structure of a computer’s operating system more or less exactly. This metaphor—if it’s a metaphor—has always struck me as being a little off.  For one thing, brains have been around for a lot longer than computers, and for most of human history the notion of an … [Read more...]

What Smokey & the Bandit Can Still Teach Us about the “New South”

In the summer of 1977 a movie hit the multiplexes, twin cinemas, and dwindling drive-ins of America like a storm, making over a hundred million dollars (in 1977 dollars at that!) and leaving a lasting mark on the pop cultural landscape. The film I am talking about, of course, is Smokey and the Bandit. Overshadowed in memory by Star Wars, the other big hit of that summer, it shared some DNA with that much more idolized movie-cum-phenomenon/religion. Both feature extended, masterfully executed chase scenes. Both glamorize truckers. (Admit it, Han and Chewie are basically space truckers.) Both have rural hicks as heroes. (Luke bulls-eyeing womp rats in his T-16 is the space equivalent of … [Read more...]

Got Revolution? Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, the Summer of Love, and Hippie Commercialism

Don’t underestimate the Airplane, even if it’s easy to do. Sure, none of their other music exceeds the concise psychedelia of their best-known songs. Yes, they morphed into progressively lame versions of themselves throughout the seventies and eighties. And yes, their final iteration, Starship, inflicted the world with “We Built This City”, which might objectively be one of the worst songs of all time. Added together, these parts might as well make Jefferson Airplane just another relic. Yet their sum is so much more. Forget the Airplane, and you not only miss out on some fine music, but you also commit a minor act of historical amnesia. If you want to know how sixties music morphed from a … [Read more...]

Dog Days Classics: My Vietnam Vacation with John Paul Vann

My interest in Vietnam stems from various sources. I grew up watching the Vietnam War in my living room with toy soldiers scattered about – old enough to wonder how the enemy could withstand such a disproportionate number of casualties, but too young to reap the benefits of the Summer of Love.  Fifty years later, family members and friends are vacationing in Vietnam (my daughter brought me postcards from her trip there, which I use to take reading notes), a trend in travel which I find both strange and hopeful. Strange because the war claimed 3 million lives, including those of 58,000 Americans, and hopeful because of the Vietnamese people’s capacity to forgive. Moreover, Ken Burns and Lynn … [Read more...]

Spend Your Dog Days with Barbara Fields and HP Lovecraft

Way back in 2011, RR and I conceived the idea of a new series where writers would look back on, reread, and reassess the books that they loved or that influenced them over the years.  Since then, many of our best contributors have revisited books by the likes of Roberts Caro and Wiebe, Barbara Fields, H.P. Lovecraft, Karen Halttunen, Michael Holt and more.  (We've also opened up the series to other kinds of works beyond books or essays, to include music and film.)  The whole idea was just to use the waning days of Summer to write shorter, more casual pieces than the epic, longform articles that we often publish. If you have a favorite scholarly work, novel, album, or film you would like … [Read more...]

Dog Days Classics: Harry Turtledove Goes to War

Harry Turtledove has written more than fifty alternate history novels, and has been described by one book critic as “the standard bearer” of the genre. For the uninitiated, his premises can sound absurd. One of his most popular works, The Guns of the South, imagines that time-traveling South Africans armed Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia with AK-47s. His World War series finds the combatants of World War II forming uneasy alliances to repel invading aliens. It is thus no surprise that he doesn’t register on many professional historians’ radar. But those historians are missing out. I’ve read his Great War series, a version of World War I where a wounded U.S.A. seeks revenge against … [Read more...]

Settin’ the Woods on Fire in the Countercultural South

I recently contributed an essay to a volume that’s forthcoming from UNC Press called The Bohemian South.  You can count me as one who is skeptical of a tradition of bohemianism in the South, at least as it is now manifested and understood. Whatever bohemianism means, it is not skinny jeans and food trucks—a familiar scene one can find in the trendier lanes of Atlanta or Durham or Richmond these days.  Sure, there was North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, where Robert Creeley and John Cage cavorted in the 1950s, as well as a smattering of other avant-garde cultures in the history of the South. But the bohemianism of today’s urban creative class seems like just a hipper … [Read more...]

No, American Citizenship Is Not Necessarily Inclusive

The rise of Donald Trump has induced a collective shudder through much of America.  For many, the GOP nominee is jeopardizing our most cherished ideals, a broad and capacious sense of who could be an American citizen, and norms that forbid open and outright expression of racist sentiment. The last Republican president at least had the decency to insist that Islam is a “religion of peace,” however destructive his policies might have been to actual Muslims, at home and abroad. Liberals and more than a few conservatives find themselves saying, This is not us.  This is not the America we know. Michael Gerson recently penned one of the more impassioned statements in this genre, looking aghast … [Read more...]

Dog Days Classics: Digging Joan Didion in the Age of Feelings

In her review of 2015’s The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty’s biography of famed writer Joan Didion, Meghan Daum noted the influence that the California essayist and novelist cast upon many a writer over the years. That The Last Love Song serves as the only biography of Didion, she noted, seemed odd. “Given the number of writers who, especially early in their literary lives, go through a period of Didion-mania intense enough to put most of her vital statistics permanently at their fingertips (the rain-soaked silk curtains in the apartment on 75th Street! the house on Franklin Avenue! the Corvette!),” Daum wrote, “you would think we’d have seen at least as many biographies of her in the past … [Read more...]

Dog Days Classics: Rethinking Wowee Zowee

Back in 1997, Stephen Malkmus was asked in an interview when it was that Pavement sold out or tried to make their sound more accessible. To the interviewer's surprise, the indie hero said Slanted and Enchanted, the band's celebrated 1992 debut. “We made a bunch of singles before that,” Malkmus recalled. Slanted might seem dissonant and avant-garde in retrospect, he said, “but then I felt it was such a pop album.” Indeed, songs like "Summer Babe" and "Zurich Is Stained" were actually lovely pop nuggets in comparison to the crazy, caustic noise rock that Pavement offered in the very earliest years of their career. To Malkmus, if not to many critics and fans, Slanted was just the first step … [Read more...]