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Good morning, and welcome back to The Daily’s Sunday culture edition, in which one Atlantic writer reveals what’s keeping them entertained.
Today’s special guest is David French, a contributing writer and the author of the newsletter The Third Rail. He’s a football fan who has critiqued what he calls the NFL’s “good ol’ boy problem” and extensively covered First Amendment issues, including the Republican turn against free speech. David loves living in the worlds of both The White Lotus and The Terminal List, and claims that true history dads read books about World War I, while true nerds read Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive series.
But first, here are three Sunday reads from The Atlantic:
David French’s Culture Survey
What my friends are talking about most right now: One of the things that most interests me about American culture is a different formulation of the “two Americas” concept. Instead of red and blue, it’s online and offline. As Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy demonstrated in their brilliant 2019 analysis of the Democratic primary electorate, there are distinct political differences between people who spend considerable time on social media versus those who do not. That exact principle applies to entertainment as well.
In my online world, I see a conversation dominated by debates over The Rings of Power versus House of the Dragon. If you’re really into prestige television, you’ll have participated in more than one conversation about Apple TV+’s show Severance (which is marvelous, by the way).
Offline, to the extent anyone talks about streaming more than they talk about football (which is rare), I hear far more about Amazon Prime shows such as Reacher or The Terminal List, action-packed shows that can be essentially summed up with the description “Deadly warrior on a quest for justice.”
Frankly, I love living in both worlds. So let’s start the night with college football; check out Amazon Prime’s latest action thriller, The Peripheral; and then end with HBO Max’s The White Lotus and a discussion about the exploitative amorality of America’s elite. And if you’re wondering how you can do your job, raise your kids, and maintain that kind of pop-culture commitment, always remember that sleep is for the weak. [Related: The powerful, unlikely force shaping modern TV]
My favorite blockbuster and favorite art movie: I’ve got a confession. I don’t watch art movies. I haven’t really seen many since I was dating my wife and tried to convince her that I had a sophisticated cinematic palate by watching Woody Allen movies. As soon as she said yes, it was back to blockbusters. The first movie we watched together after we exchanged vows was the original Independence Day, a film far more glorious than anything I’ve ever seen with subtitles or set in the sitting room of an English aristocrat.
But a blockbuster art movie? That’s the stuff. Those are the best films of all time, and the apex of the genre used to be the original Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece. I’m still haunted by the beauty and finality of Rutger Hauer’s death soliloquy as Roy Batty: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe … Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion … I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain … Time to die.”
But there’s a new champion for best blockbuster art film, and that’s Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film, Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. The premise is simple—aliens arrive, and the world needs linguists to try to communicate with the interstellar visitors. What you watch is one of the most moving and thought-provoking films ever placed on the silver screen. My family still talks about the concepts of time and destiny embedded in the film, and it contains a message of profound meaning—fierce love is worth deep pain. [Related: Arrival’s timely message about empathy]
The best work of nonfiction I’ve recently read, and the best novel: As a middle-aged dad and young grandfather, in some ways my reading habits are completely clichéd. I like World War II histories (I just finished Paul Kennedy’s new history of the naval war in World War II, Victory at Sea: Naval Power and the Transformation of the Global Order in World War II), but everyone knows the true hard-core history dads read books about World War I.
I highly recommend a 2014 book by Alexander Watson. I just discovered Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I, and it’s one of the relatively few books that tracks the war from the perspective of the Central Powers. I don’t view the Allied victory as inevitable in either world conflict, so it was fascinating for me to gain greater insight into the strategic choices and grave mistakes that led to Germany’s defeat and Austria-Hungary’s dissolution.
As for fiction, if you claim to be a nerd and haven’t discovered Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive series, then I doubt your credentials. It’s got everything I love—compelling characters, rich world-building, powerful magic, and epic battles. And after you catch up on the The Stormlight Archive, read his older series The Mistborn Saga. But set aside a month or so—there are a lot of pages in those stories. [Related: The imperial mind: A historian’s education in the ways of empire]
A quiet song that I love, and a loud song that I love: We’ve been living through a season of loss, and there’s an older song by a Northern Irish Christian musician named Robin Mark that has affected me from the first moments I truly faced my own mortality when I deployed to Iraq. It’s called “When It’s All Been Said and Done,” and its simple lyrics challenge us to consider our legacy. When it’s all been said or done, did we live for truth or for treasure?
As for a loud song, I just finished creating a playlist called “Old and Awesome,” and it includes all of my favorite songs from my teen years to my life as a young adult. The newest song is “The Rising,” by Bruce Springsteen. It can be loud or quiet, but I prefer the loud version. There are precious few songs about tragedy (in this case, the doomed “rising” of the firefighters up the burning World Trade Center towers on 9/11) that are quite so defiant, demonstrating there is something majestic about courage and that we live our lives with both a sense of purpose and eternal hope. It’s magnificent. [Related: Bruce Springsteen and the art of aging well]
The Week Ahead
- Stella Maris, the second of Cormac McCarthy’s interconnected new novels (Tuesday)
- George & Tammy, a series about country music’s George Jones and Tammy Wynette, starring Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon (premieres tonight on Showtime)
- Empire of Light, Sam Mendes’s new film starring Olivia Colman (in theaters Friday)
The Most Overhyped Space Movie
By Marina Koren
As the outer-space correspondent at The Atlantic, I spend a lot of time looking beyond Earth’s atmosphere. I’ve watched footage of a helicopter flying on Mars. I’ve watched a livestream of NASA smashing a spacecraft into an asteroid on purpose. I’ve seen people blast off on rockets with my own eyes. But I have never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This is an enormous oversight, apparently. The 1968 film is considered one of the greatest in history and its director, Stanley Kubrick, a cinematic genius. And, obviously, it’s about space. Surely a space reporter should see it—and surely a reporter should take notes.
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Read the latest culture essay by Jordan Calhoun in Humans Being.
Catch Up on The Atlantic
Keep up with our photo editor’s Space Telescope Advent Calendar. Every day until Christmas, he will add a new image of the universe.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.