Spying on the South is a beautiful narrative by Tony Horwitz as he travels through the American South on the very same paths Fredrick Law Olmsted took in the mid 1800s. Whether you have never been to the south or you were born and raised there, this book is a glimpse into the most hated, loved, and mythologized region in America. His trip, filled with steamboat rides down the Mississippi, monster truck rallies, and iconic plantations, weaves together the historical and political and reflects on how the south has or (mostly) has not changed since the Civil War. Plaques and confederate soldier statues serve as physical reminders of that brutal divide in American history, and the question still remains: is America just as divided now?
The death of Tony Horwitz earlier this year was a tragic loss to the literary community and his last book, Spying on the South (Penguin Press, $30), is an exceptional example of the kind of intrepid spirit that he was. Following the wanderings of Frederick Law Olmsted through the South on the eve of the Civil War, Horwitz’s own travels read as an homage to the restless curiosity that drove Olmsted to roam and the empathy for humanity that inspired him to create Central Park, aka the “people’s park.” Rather than attempting to explain the South here, Horwitz—as Olmsted did—opts for offering observations over analysis. He lets us hear the voices of the people he meets, and as we listen to them tell their own tales, the book offers an implicit hope that we as readers will be able to find common ground among the diversity of experiences. Conversational and often humorous, Horwitz’s journalistic style is ultimately more poignant that comic; his openness and genuine interest in dialogue feels as uncommon and incredibly important in our political climate as it did to Olmsted two centuries ago.
Did you ever wonder why Brahm’s lullaby, the Star Wars movies, Seinfeld’s TV series, or the Instagram app—just to name a few examples—became popular? In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson addresses these and many other instances of success as well as failure as he examines why some things become big hits and others not. A senior editor at The Atlantic and a frequent TV commentator, Thompson ranges widely in his book, looking at movies, music, art, TV shows, literature, ideas and much more. A talented storyteller, he explores in engaging and enlightening ways the psychological and economic forces that shape what we like. Is it the familiar or the exotic that attracts us most? Do we want the next big thing or the last big thing—or perhaps both? What role does luck play in popularizing something? Thompson offers answers.