David Hume turns 300 on May 7. It is fitting, I suppose, that a man so resolutely mortal should be enjoying such immortality. Most of Hume’s contemporaries are long forgotten. Hume, somehow, endures. His old pal Adam Smith (author of The Wealth of Nations), relates that in Hume’s dying days he told his friends, “I have done every thing of consequence which I ever meant to do, and I could at no time expect to leave my relations and friends in a better situation than that in which I am likely to leave them: I therefore have all reason to die contented.”

 

It was that ancient and ugly Greek, Socrates, who first made the claim that philosophy is a preparation for death. He said it just before taking his hemlock, so we can assume that he was being… More…

Unlike Thoreau, I could not be removed from the ruckus of civilization. No, I could escape for an hour or two at the most, taking advantage of an unexpected return of warm weather to spend some time in a tidal salt marsh. I write this to return to a place where the most regular sounds are the rustle and whisper of the dry reeds and grasses in the late afternoon breeze.

 

And then birds. Circling, the gulls cry. In this slant of light their white sides glow golden before they plunge out of sight to settle in a hidden channel of water flowing through the high grass of the meadows. Unseen, a sparrow chips at the afternoon.  A loud croak announces the presence of a nearby great blue heron, disturbed. Snow geese will winter here and add their… More…

I’ve become a Julian Assange man. Leak away, Julian. Leak it all, leak everything. Leak whatever you can until they find a way to shut you down for good.

 

At first, I was not sure how to feel about the recent dump of classified documents at WikiLeaks. I could see the arguments on both sides. I understand that we are the owners of a flawed and imperfect world within which no one owns a pair of those proverbial clean hands. No, we have a dirty world of infinite compromise. We muddle through, more or less, and the women and men who do the muddling, at the international level, are, more often than not, engaged in a tricky business. Human beings have a hard enough time being moral agents. For nation states, the task is well nigh impossible. And… More…

There comes in the life of every city an era of unsurpassed greatness. Whether it’s an aligning of the stars or simply a convergence of social pressures, cultural influences, history, and politics, the city bursts forth with great innovation, creative outpouring, and a lively sense of community. They are exciting times to live through, if you happen to be lucky enough to be there. Suddenly the world opens up and you are a part of something bigger than your own daily life. You can talk of revolution without having to use air quotes or a sarcastic tone, and riots can start over a jarring new form of music. Cities such as Bohemian New York, Weimar Berlin, Paris between the wars, pre-Revolutionary Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and pretty much every major Western city in 1968 brought into life new music, architecture, visual art, scientific advancement, and social structure. Residents watched as… More…

In 1909, E.M. Forster published his short story “The Machine Stops” as an antidote to H.G. Wells’ optimistic tales of the future. Set in a world where The Machine (read: the Internet) controls all aspects of life, and a person can communicate with friends through “Plates” (read: Skype) or push a button (read: e-mail) and have their work sent in, there was never any reason to walk the surface of Earth ever again. All a person could need was in his room, where he wasted away, pale and untouched, like Vashti, the story’s subject.

Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson. 327 pages. Prometheus Books. $25.98. A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. 320 pages. Granta Books.

“There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing…. More…

America was booming in the Gilded Age, the era after the Civil War when robber barons hammered out vast empires and enormous fortunes were made overnight in New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. At the same time out West, American chefs were refining their own contribution to international culture: Fast food.

Of course, they were drawing on a grand tradition: As with so much else, we can blame the ancient Romans for the original idea. As excavators have found in Pompeii, busy citizens would stand at stone counters called thermapolia and shovel down fried meat or rich stews ladeled out of in vats in the counter (an early form of steam table). Travelers even more pressed for time… More…

Popular culture seems to have two general depictions of small towns. The first is a naive, sleepy, hamlet where nothing ever happens, populated with lovable eccentrics and warm-hearted folk (always folk, never people). Generally this setup sees the return of the prodigal son or arrival of an outsider, almost always from the “big city,” of which the townies speak with disdain. The protagonist will eventually fall in love with a more wholesome type of woman and realize what he’s needed all along is a simpler kind of life. See television shows like Northern Exposure and Ed, for example. The other stereotype involves a placid calm that masks a swirling tempest of murder (Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt), violence, racism (Pudd’nhead Wilson), small mindedness, and cowfucking (that would be Faulkner). The most accurate depiction of life in a small town I have ever seen, the TV show Friday Night Lights, is… More…

 

It’s that time of year when you see the racks of oddly configured swaths of cloth hanging in the front of stores. Bathing suits: absurd, wrong-headed garments. I continue to be mystified by how people continue to buy and wear them.

It’s a given that women of a certain age don’t like the way they look in bathing suits. The comic strip Cathy has made this a seasonal riff. But the cartoon misses the point in linking problems with bathing suits to female vanity. It’s not about vanity; it’s about modesty. Not about looking fat but about being naked.

Even as a child, I understood this. As I ran under the sprinkler in my electric orange two-piece, I knew that it was one thing for me, with my hairless legs and flat chest, to wear such a scanty,… More…

 

“I’m like, I don’t believe this shit.” That’s the opening line of Jay McInerney’s Story of My Life. The thought is coming from Alison Poole, the protagonist of the novel (if you can use that term). McInerney based the character of Alison Poole on a woman he dated in the ’80s. Her name back then was Lisa Druck. She later married a guy named Alexander Hunter III and changed her name to Rielle Hunter. Then she had an affair with presidential candidate John Edwards. The rest is tabloid history. This shit really is hard to believe.

With those first two words — “I’m like” — it is clear that this is not your classic life story. Compare, for instance, the first sentence of Hans Christian Andersen’s The True Story of My Life. It goes, “My life is a… More…

Publishing – and not just nature – abhors a vacuum, and the chasm between Peter Kramer (Listening to Prozac) and the assorted others who sing the praises of psychopharmacology, and the group led by folks like Eric G. Wilson (Against Happiness) who believe depression is good for you, certainly was airless. It was only a matter of time before the industry tried to fill the gap with books that acknowledged people’s growing distrust of Prozac and its brethren but also their belief that depression is something that should be fought and eradicated.

Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression by James S. Gordon. Penguin. 448 pages. $16.00 (new in paperback). The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs by Stephen S. Ilardi. De Capo Lifelong Books. 304 pages. $25.00.

The last few… More…