Thursday Links

I know this is breaking with tradition, but seeing as I wrapped up my grading a couple days ago, I have more time to read and write for pleasure. One of my goals going forward is to try and post here more frequently, including more links to the abundance of great stuff available online. So here’s some post-hump day fare:

  • Ryan has commented on Wesley Morris’s greatness before, but it bears repeating: Wesley Morris is the best film critic in the game right now. But that doesn’t even really cover it. He might be the best writer about our contemporary cultural productions in general. His latest piece on the body in the media is the kind of stuff academics should be writing, though most don’t have the chops to do so, to say nothing of the humility to write about culture without the crutch of theoretical jargon. He also manages to weave in his own life in a way that’s not at all cloying, just heartbreaking. Can’t wait for this guy to put out a book of his essays. Bonus Grantland:  Mark Harris’s “Academy Taxonomy” is a great breakdown of how we end up with the Academy Award nominees we do. Even if Wesley Morris wasn’t writing for them, Grantland would have excellent movie coverage from smart folks like Harris. The fact that he is though makes the site indispensable.
  • Mark Yakich has written a defense of poetry that isn’t at all defensive. The fact that The Atlantic saw fit to run it is encouraging, as poetry gets dogged on all the time (often by the people who write it and write about it) for being “useless” in contemporary culture. The fact that people say this at a moment when rap music is at its most diverse and Twitter is reminding us of the importance of form and diction is frankly why many poets and critics deserve their poverty and obscurity. Pro tip: if you want people to think you matter, don’t trash your own creations. People respect confidence, not whining self-pity.
  • I’ve recently started watching The Rockford Files on Netflix. In another life I wrote a dissertation on bachelorhood in American literature up until the mid-1960s. One of the nice things about not being on the tenure track is that you don’t have to revisit your dissertation ever again if you don’t want to. But if I was going to redraft it, there’d have to be a chapter on James Garner’s Jim Rockford, a 1970s update of Chandler’s Marlowe. Instead of living in a Hollywood apartment, Rockford lives in a junky trailer on the beach in Malibu that would run him at least $4000 a month in rent now. He’s an ex-con (though he swears he didn’t rob that bank), and as he remarks to one of the show’s rotating cast of beautiful women: “I’m eligible for anything but marriage.” Every episode has at least one car chase, and the guy who plays Rockford’s dad (who’s also keepin’ it bach) is only 15 years older than Garner. You should watch this instead of any of the crap ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX are churning out.
  • I’ve never heard of James Delbourgo before, but I think he might be the kind of academic TGR can get behind. I’m not convinced yet, but this article in The Chronicle about curiosity cabinets and the internet is pretty interesting. Still, I have become so wary of academic discourse that I am constantly in “distrust and verify” mode when it comes to this stuff. He cites Evgeny Morozov though, so that’s a plus.

This is Criminal

Matt Yglesias catches a lot of flack from folks on both the Right and the Left for everything from his faulty prose to his sometimes ill-conceived ideas. I will admit to finding Yglesias’s work occasionally too rich-kiddy Neoliberal for my tastes, but there’s a reason he’s been paid to write about economic policy by many publications for as long as he has: he’s very good at quickly getting to what’s important. His latest piece on unemployment insurance is a perfect example of this. If reading this simple take on what the Ryan-Murray budget will do to the long-term unemployed doesn’t make you want to move to Sweden (or Switzerland), I don’t know what will.

It is especially important for articles like this to make the rounds in the wake of Rand Paul’s odious suggestion that we should cut off unemployment benefits after 28 weeks to light a fire under the lazy 47%ers who are mooching off the system (and voting Democrat). Rand Paul mouthing off like this is not surprising, but given his father’s bizarre appeal to a small segment of young voters, it is worth worrying about. Paul the Younger is a major voice within the GOP and presumptive candidate for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination. In his mind, ending unemployment is really just a question of eliminating the pretty minimally humane incentives we extend to people who happened to get thrown off the electric kool-aid acid bus of capitalism. It’s unemployment insurance that’s preventing these people from bootstrapping themselves into the middle (and may even the upper!) class. This is nonsense, and many smart people have said as much, but it’s important that sites like Slate, which caters to younger readers, put things as bluntly as possible:

Mailing unemployment insurance checks to people who aren’t so much unemployed as unemployable is obviously not an ideal public policy. But simply doing nothing for them is cruel and insane… We’re going to do nothing. We’re going to tell people to go out and look for work, even though employers looking to hire can still afford to be very choosy and generally refuse to even consider the long-term unemployed as job applicants. The country failed these people first by letting the labor market stay so slack for so long that they became unhirable, and now we’re going to fail them again.

Matt Yglesias may not be the prose stylist David Foster Wallace was, but he doesn’t have to be in order to point out the cruel insanity that’s ruling the Republican Party, and that’s apparently infected the Democrats as well. People who can’t find work are simply screwed under this new budget, and if folks like Rand Paul get their way, anyone unlucky enough to be unemployed for even six months (and I know many people who’ve experienced this) will be too.

Saturday Links: Fighting the Bloat

We’ve all made bad choices over the last few days. Our guts are in states of revolt, and we feel encased in thin layers of booze and butter. It will take weeks of kale and green tea to make this right. Running is necessary, but so awful. Sitting. Sitting and reading is the thing. So here are some items to sit and read while our bodies try and undo the damage we’ve done.

  • If you need to feel better about the amount of wine (and other spirits) you imbibed over the last few days, this little post about James Boswell’s Book of Company and Liquors should do the trick. Boswell is one of this blog’s patron saints, along with Hitchens, Amis, Didion, Faulkner, Baldwin… The man was a spectacular writer and drinker, and an unreconstructed lech. The fact that he recorded what he and his dinner guests drank is not at all surprising, as he basically kept accounts of everything in his life, like Fitzgerald did in his ledgers. But the amount of booze he and his bros drank in a given night is just shocking. How the man made it even to 55 is something scientists should be studying.
  • John Warner’s Just Visiting blog over at The Chronicle of Higher Ed is always worth your time, but his latest post about what to do about the sad state of higher ed is required reading. He echoes a lot of what we’ve been saying on this blog for a long time, but his sense that we should do “nothing” about our schools might rub some people the wrong way, particularly progressives and libertarian technophiles who think that every problem needs an innovative solution. Warner’s “nothing” isn’t nothing though. He’s saying that we need to STOP doing the things that aren’t working, like buying kids iPads, devising “better” tests, and constantly changing our standards. How about we just focus on teaching kids to read, write, and reason? I know, sounds revanchist and crazy. Best to keep innovating, because that’s worked out so well.
  • The 92nd Street Y in New York has hosted an eclectic series of speakers and performers since it opened its doors over a hundred years ago. Now you can watch videos of over 1,000 of these events on their website. This is the kind of digital education we can get behind.
  • Good lord, the art world is shady. If you need further proof, check out the documentaries The Art of the Steal (streaming on Netflix) and Stolen.
  • Thanks to Adam Ted Jacobson for sending me this link to Thomas Frank’s latest dose of truth. Frank is that rare writer who can write a positive review of something while also questioning its entire purpose. This piece might be his most on-point yet.

Sunday Links

For most people, not reading is just about the easiest thing in the world to do. But if you’re someone who visits this site, you aren’t one of these people. We try to give you good writing, whether ours or written by others, to feed the need. So once again, here are some pieces we think are worth reading with your Sunday morning coffee (or whenever you get around to it).

  • This Newsweek (yeah, I didn’t know it still existed either) profile of the writer William T. Vollmann reveals that the FBI kept (and possibly still keeps) tabs on him and suspected that he might have been the Unabomber. I must confess to never having read an entire Vollmann book, but the excerpts I have read are outstanding. I never would have thought of him as a contender for the Nobel, but given his politics production, the suggestion actually makes sense.
  • Two of the most interesting pieces I’ve read on the Richie Incognito affair couldn’t come from more different sources: Grantland and The National Review. Brian Phillips takes on the contrived (and frankly offensive) warrior culture of football in his Grantland article, writing: “Because this — this idea that Jonathan Martin is a weakling for seeking emotional help — this is some room-temperature faux-macho alpha-pansy nonsense, and I am here to beat it bloody and leave it on the ground. Every writer who’s spreading this around, directly or by implication; every player who’s reaction-bragging about his own phenomenal hardness; every pundit in a square suit who’s braying about the unwritten code of the locker room — every one of these guys should be ashamed of himself, and that’s it, and it’s not a complicated story.” I tend to agree with this sentiment, but Daniel Foster offers another take over at NRO: “Phillips affectingly writes of America as a ‘nation of gentle accountants and customer-service reps who’ve retained this one venue’ — the National Football League — ‘where we can air-guitar the berserk discourse of a warrior race.’ But he says that like it’s a bad thing. On the contrary, this compartmentalization and channeling of destructive impulses into less harmful endeavors — recognized in Freud’s concept of sublimation and William James’s ‘moral equivalent of war’ — is the hallmark of a civilized people. Every institutional order needs it. The Amish need their Rumspringa, Europe needs Amsterdam, and a nation of gentle accountants needs the National Football League.” Like I said, I agree with Phillips that the less we tolerate meathead culture the better, but I don’t think Foster is wrong to suggest that if we want that, we might need to accept the end of football.
  • I probably don’t need to tell you how awesome the Paris Review is, but it bears repeating: The Paris Review is awesome. Check out this interview with Nabokov and try to tell me otherwise.
  • Helen Vendler’s review of Linda Leavell’s new biography/study of the works of Marianne Moore will get your excited to read the works of one of America’s least obviously weird and radical poets.
  • And finally, if you have not checked out my friend Drew’s multi-platform project Artbound, this video and article will give you a sense of the kinds of fascinating stories you are missing out on.

Sunday Links

If you’d like to increase your own brain power while you watch grown men drastically reduce theirs, may we suggest the following exercises:

Happy Sunday, folks!

Saturday Links

The college football schedule is finally starting to get interesting, so I understand if you ignore my advice and just post up on your couch eating Funyuns. If you are looking for a slightly more refined weekend experience though, may I suggest the following:

  • Check out these amazing illustrations Salvador Dali drew for Don Quixote. The man’s work was so much more than melting clocks. [h/t to the Prufrock Newsletter]
  • Over at Slate, read Joseph Thomas’ account of trying to get the estate of Shel Silverstein to allow him to quote from the author’s works. This is something Ryan and I both know a bit about, as I published a piece on the lengths J.D. Salinger went to guard his personal letters from Ian Hamilton, and Ryan had the misfortune of trying to convince Sylvia Plath’s gatekeepers that a dissertation did not represent a market threat. Godspeed, Prof. Thomas.
  • Jordan Conn wrote a great piece at Grantland about how Oakland looks poised to lose all of its professional sports teams within the next decade. The article ends up being a profile of one of the more unique (for better and for worse) American cities in a time of simultaneous crisis and rebirth.
  • The always insightful Alan Jacobs has a great (and longish) review essay up at Books & Culture about Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge. Jacobs is a serious and generous critic, and while I don’t share his religious beliefs or politics, I appreciate that he spends so much of his time writing for non-academic audiences. More professors need to look outside the tower every now and then.
  • This is (another) shameless plug, but you should check out the Book Review section over at The Los Angeles Review, where I serve as Assistant Book Reviews Editor.
  • And, this [h/t Adam Ted Jacobson, via Gawker]:

Go See Cal

Before he died, quite suddenly, a few years back, my uncle and I had a Cal Worthington moment. If you were lucky enough to see one of Cal’s commercials, you know what I’m talking about. If not, here:

We were rapping about something, I don’t remember what, but somehow we got on to TV, which led to commercials, which led to Cal. My uncle swore Cal had been run out of Bakersfield on a rail, which is how he ended up in Long Beach. Near as I can tell from reading Sam Sweet’s great little Paris Review blast, that probably didn’t happen. But it also totally could have! Mid-century papertrails were made of actual paper, so tracing Cal’s movements up and down the spine of California would require work most of us just don’t want to put in anymore. But it’s almost better not knowing. Cal’s commercials were charming in their complete lack of cultural content. Compare Cal’s wingwalking and ape talking with this creepy garbage:

This paean to middle-American, conservative, rural, masculinity is the kind of fantasy Klaus Theweleit would tell us is an indication that we’re about two clicks away from fascism. It imagines a world where working class men are driving around in $40K trucks smiling about the prospect of going home and holding hands with high school sweethearts. In reality, the men who can afford to drive these trucks and the men who “get to work on time” aren’t the same dudes. In fact, there probably aren’t even jobs for the working class guys to go to anymore. And if this fantasy man ever did marry his best girl from high school, they probably got divorced a few years back when money got real tight. But Chevy thinks it’s best to lie to people about the country they live in. And they’re probably right.

Cal wasn’t interested in selling us an ideal. He just wanted to sell us cars. There’s a level of honesty in his ads that we’ll probably never see again. We’re so desperate to be cool, authentic, and, above all, validated by ads that we can only appreciate Cal’s spots ironically. “They’re so bad, they’re good!” To hell with that. They’re good because they’re memorable without being emotionally manipulative. Unlike Apple, or American Apparel, or Chevy, Cal Worthington respected us enough to make himself the fool in our place. That’s something worth buying.