Bookmarks Issue: 
John Leland

The History

A-HipHistoryHip: The History is the story of our desire to be cool. Leland, who’s written for Details, Spin, and The New York Times, charts our American obsession with hipness. Linking literary and pop icon stars from Walt Whitman and Raymond Chandler to Snoop Dogg, he shows how we constantly remake ourselves to fit a certain, historically unique image. Beats, geeks, pimps, outlaws, junkies, "black" whites, and "white" blacks have all had a hand (or voice, or step) in shaping our definition of hipness—and it all harkens back to race relations. But is hipness authentic, or not? The answer perhaps lies in the eyes of the beholder.
Ecco. 384 pages. $26.50. ISBN: 0060528176

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Recognizing what is hip is not tantamount to defining it; that John Leland resists the obvious temptation to answer such an impossible question is just one of the strengths of his alluring book." Renee Graham

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"The real enjoyment of this book has less to do with its theoretical rigor, or lack thereof, than with its hectic retelling of a certain strand of our cultural history: the musicians, artists, writers, stand-up comics, actors, designers, outlaws, cartoon characters, and just plain eccentric bon vivants who somehow sharpen a particular edge of everyday living. … I recommend this book because I suspect that it will point a reader back to the touchstones of hip in his own life." Duane Davis

Baltimore Sun 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Hip] makes the convincing case that the clash and mingling of European and African cultures produced the perfect environment for the development of hip." Stephen Kiehl

Boston Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Leland presents an insightful, scrupulously researched history of the slippery idea of hip and the individuals who embodied it. … [It’s a] problematic endeavor without the perspective of time, but even then it’s an engrossing, thought-provoking riff." Rob Mitchell

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"… an impressive achievement—thorough, exhaustively researched and eventually a bit exhausting. He seems to know everything there is to know about hip [but] by the end I found myself wishing he knew a little less and felt a little more about his subject."
John Strausbaugh

Seattle Times 2 of 5 Stars
"This is going to sound weird, but I would much rather take a university course in the history of hip taught by John Leland than read his highly detailed but ultimately unsatisfying new book … [B]oiling a pop-culture laundry list into a book format drains the subject of its juice." Anne Hurley

Critical Summary

In Hip: A History, Leland goes far beyond our standard definitions of "hip," defined by various American writers, artists, and musicians. Critics agree that Leland’s done his homework—what’s more fun than listening to jazz, reading Beat generation literature, or watching old movies? But in his exploration of hipness, Leland leaves a little something to be desired. The book is eclectic, but not always choosy in its examples or satisfying in its analysis. While fun, Hip contains glib, overly detailed, and even offensively smug passages that can kill the life of his subject. You may not need this book to tell you what hip is—we’re sure you know it when you see it.