I was maybe eleven years old when I first heard the phrase “life of the mind.” Up to that point I had been living the life of the sweatpants, so the possibility of doing all the same things I had been doing—Dungeons & Dragons, Isaac Asimov novels in which one of a roomful of robots has committed a crime, math—but with the imprimatur of stately pursuit seemed hugely appealing. At school, I calmly announced that I would be living the life of the mind from there on out. Obviously, that would exempt me from life-of-the-school activities like hitting, although I recognized that it also would require certain sacrifices, like never overcoming my fear of talking to girls. Twenty-three years later, the life of the mind is going strong: strangers still express an inordinate desire to hit me/continue to not meet me, depending on gender, and I know more about robots than anyone except people who have actually worked with them. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. This week’s link roundup is about those intellectual pursuits that make even my life worth living: history, books, awful movies about books, and awful people who wrote plays, which are like movies that have been ruined by books. Won’t you live the life of the mind with me? Or at least keep an eye peeled for jocks while I do?
Here is the thing I like best about the Onion: every once in a while, you can tell that they are really worried. This week’s article about historians politely suggesting that we consider things that have happened in the past when we decide what to do today shows a beautiful symmetry between form and function. The satirist balances between exhortation and despair, and a fictional Onion expert will almost always plummet right into the net. “You know how the economy is not doing so well right now?” says the imaginary Professor Elizabeth Schuller of the University of North Carolina. “Well, in the 1930s, financial markets—no, wait, I’m sorry. Here: A long, long time ago, way far in the past, certain things happened that were a lot like things now, and they made people hungry and sad.” Americans are a proud people, and just now we seem to know unusually little about everything, and so we ready ourselves for bold action.
Part of the problem with considering the past in our decisions is that there’s so damn much of it. You could read a 500-page biography about the later life of Ernest Hemingway, or you could just get the good parts in this rad book review. We’re coming up on the centenary of The Sun Also Rises, and I think it’s safe to declare Papa the best American writer of the 20th century. Okay, it’s totally unsafe to do that—as any number of bar arguments I have had will attest—but it’s only because the man himself was kind of an asshole. We know from his “long letters bursting with description, affection, bitterness, complaint, and great self-regard,” and the tendency of nearly all his friendships to become terminal. Half of it, though, was that he was just so good at writing. Don’t think about how he knocked out The Sun Also Rises in eight weeks. Don’t think about how your own prose was messed up for months after you read For Whom the Bell Tolls. You’ll only wind up turning to John Updike and living the tweedbound life of the schmuck.
I, for one, think that books should be poignant. They should reinforce my sense of the world as a magical place—”magical” being defined as “the kind of stuff that doesn’t happen in the world”—and myself as a uniquely sensitive person within it. For you see, I am a total pussy, and my name is Jonathan Safran Foer. Those who know me well know that I really, really dislike Mr. Foer and his writing. If you want to understand why in two and a half minutes, watch this trailer for the movie version of his 9/11 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Remember how that work of subtle nuance famously included a flip-book of people jumping out of the burning towers? This movie is like a two-hour flip book you don’t have to work with your hands: twee, infantilizing and two-dimensional. And it’s got U2!
Beware that evil cousin to the life of the mind, the life of smugly fixing other people’s minds. For a brief period when I was in college, I thought David Mamet was the best playwright. So did David Mamet, and only one of us grew out of it. Now that he’s old, Mamet has turned his critical faculties on his younger self, but only on those aspects of himself safely distant from his work. The result is The Secret Knowledge, in which he repudiates liberalism to embarace a lifestyle conservatism so spectacularly orthodox as to even offend a reviewer at The American Conservative. I love a takedown piece, and Scott Galupo takes Mamet the fuck down. “Turgid when it’s not imperious, utterly lacking in fresh insight, full of breathtakingly stupid generalizations, The Secret Knowledge is, for a writer of Mamet’s caliber, nothing short of embarrassing. What is this thing?” he writes. The whole review is like that, and it includes Mamet’s assertion that, contrary to scientific consensus, the polar bear population is increasing. He should know; he wrote Glengarry Glen Ross.
I almost gave in to my compulsion to put the Alec Baldwin scene from that movie in every link roundup. Instead, our palate cleanser is the September Failblog montage. It’s an exceptionally good fail montage, even by their high standards. Like all lives, the life of the mind is prone to abrupt suspensions.