Cultural Literacy 101
April 13, 2014 6:38 AM   Subscribe

For a friend: Say someone wants to develop a working sense of modern-day cultural literacy in the United States. This person has very limited knowledge of current events, and has limited himself to only a very narrow scope of popular entertainment. He now wishes to be able to converse about these topics with reasonably savvy adults (such as in dating scenarios and social gatherings). Can you provide sources of information for the following?

- Current events/news (preferably with background information on important topics/people; most news sites seem to be written for people who have been following stories as they've unfolded - but what about when someone has never opened his eyes to major issues before?)

- Culturally significant TV shows (i.e. the ones people are likely to be talking about now - he watches Game of Thrones, Girls, and some reality shows, but that's about it)

- Recent films that an adult maybe ought to have seen (any genre is fine)

- Important books from the last 10 or so years (probably like important nonfiction titles and maybe mainstream fiction best sellers; he's not a sci/fi or fantasy guy, and he's actually not a big reader at all)

In case it's relevant, this guy is American, in his late 30s, and has access to Netflix, on-demand cable, Amazon Prime, the Kindle app, and basically anything online. He's not big on podcasts or audio books, as he has a bit of trouble processing information by listening alone.

posted by justonegirl to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps someone will chime in with more specific advice, but I would tell your friend to just go through the award winners and start viewing movies/shows that jump out at him.

Same for books really- pick titles that are appealing from the NYTimes best seller list, but if he doesn't like reading that isn't really going to work out IMHO.

for current events I would suggest getting the cnn app on his phone or getting news brief podcasts like pri's the world or pbs news hour.
posted by abirdinthehand at 6:52 AM on April 13, 2014

Read the New York Times at least a few times a week.
posted by k8t at 6:53 AM on April 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

IMHO the Economist is better for kickstarting knowledge of current events than the NYT. Better and more conversationally written, substantially more focused, and it has the benefit of knowing a week later what was important that week. And at least the Economist is clear and direct about its editorial biases.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:59 AM on April 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

The Slate Culture Gabfest podcast is pretty good about narrowing down 3 cultural works that "everyone" is talking about that week - the tone can get a little highbrow / pretentious, but it's a good overview of what to look out for - even if your friend only checks out their choice of topics and watches/reads their picks on his own without listening, he can get a good sense of what's on people's radar who are really up on these things.
posted by Mchelly at 7:21 AM on April 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

You know, the new NYTNow app is actually a really fairly relaxing way to consume news. It's very packaged and brief. They also have a nice secondary tab in that app that is basically a blog of things going on, which covers culture, technology, the world, in a very casual and easy to digest fashion. I feel strangely well-versed in all manner of things when I read it; it's nice to have smart people pointing things out to you.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:23 AM on April 13, 2014

"Current events/news (preferably with background information on important topics/people; most news sites seem to be written for people who have been following stories as they've unfolded - but what about when someone has never opened his eyes to major issues before?)"

This is the exact goal of the newly-launched They have relevant backgrounders on topics that they call "card stacks." Like if you go to this story about Pope Francis apologizing for the sex-abuse scandal (current event), it has at the bottom a card from their card stack on everything you need to know about Pope Francis. They're sort-of like rolling FAQs on news topics. If you're up-to-date on the topic, you can just read the article like in a normal newspaper. But if you're new to the topic, you can click through to the card stack and get the background you need to understand it, and then they update those "FAQs" with new information as it becomes available.

I'm pretty news-savvy but I've been enjoying flipping through the card stacks and having the backgrounders put together so clearly and concisely. It launched literally last week so there's not TONS of content, and it wouldn't read it as my ONLY news source, but it's definitely a good place for someone looking to contextualize a story and understand the background and get up to speed.

I also read NYMag's cultural stuff Vulture blog, which keeps me up-to-date on movies and TV shows, even ones I'm not really into; entertainment news; music ... and to a somewhat lesser extent, books, art, architecture, theater, and so forth. They do a pretty good job with straightforward headlines so that you can skim just the headlines and see what's going on ("Baz Luhrmann in Talks to Make Kung Fu Movie") and only click through on stuff you're curious about. They do a good job dissecting cultural stuff, not just reporting on it, so I know WHY people are excited about things, and while it definitely has a preferred aesthetic (one that I largely share), they also cover things that are massively buzzy, very high-culture, or very low-culture. So I don't have to read about EVERYTHING Miley Cyrus does but when she's the trendiest trend that ever trended, Vulture will have a piece on it so I'll know wtf everyone is on about.

It's NYC-centric, obviously, but for TV, movies, and books that doesn't really matter. The theater coverage (for example) is less relevant to me, but I don't mind.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:23 AM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Next Draft is a daily email with news topics - I think I heard about it first here.
posted by bunderful at 7:23 AM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would read back issues of magazines. They're probably the fastest way to get a big view.

-perhaps subscribe to Time and skim through their archives from 2000 onwards -- issue by issue.
-could do the same with the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and maybe JUST the front page of the New York Times
-again, skimming will not take much time... read the article when it's really important or compelling

That alone would get most of the most important cultural history of the last 15-20 years.

If you want to supplement, watch:

look up the top-grossing and oscar-winning films of the past 15 years and watch some of them
look up the top TV shows of the past 15 years and watch some of them
do the same with music & use Spotify
posted by shivohum at 7:24 AM on April 13, 2014

The Week magazine does this - although it has a conservative bias, it's still the best one-stop shop I've found in a magazine for this kind of light-touch broad approach.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:30 AM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would suggest listening to Wait Wait Don't Tell Me on a regular basis to guide the listener to

Listen to WWDTM, make note of anything one wants to know more about, then google for primaryish sources for in depth reading. Listening to NPR in general is a nice primer, but not a great primary source.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:31 AM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I applaud what you are trying but a big part of cultural literacy is reflective thinking and critical review. The comment about the Economist's bias is obvious to us, but would probably not be to your friend. I would attend a newsworthy event with your friend, talk about your impressions with him, then together read articles about the event by newspapers/blogs with biases to compare. Same with TV shows, watch Mad Men and then read Tom and Lorenzo for example. Encourage him to read/watch things not aimed at his demographic (BiG clue - if the ads are not reflecting his life then he is not the target).

Who does he want to talk about this with? My parents watch reality tv shows and listen to talk radio, my friends watch HBO dramas and listen to pop, my boss watches and listens to the CBC. Hanging out with single guy friends would probably mean a different cultural literacy than someone he is dating.

Since he likes non-fiction, thoughtful biographies in his areas of interest are a good "in" for reading (a good reference interview with a librarian at his public library would be helpful).
posted by saucysault at 7:33 AM on April 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I subscribe to Need 2 Know its a daily email with really short blurbs about news, sports and entertainment and it keeps me from feeling absolute clueless about whats going on.

Also, I don't think your friend needs to know everything in depth he should focus on having a broad overview and then looking more deeply into things he's interested in. There really isn't an expectation these days of being up to date on all that's going on.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 7:34 AM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think for TV/film, it kind of depends what sort of people you're actually hanging out with. Like, there's one set of people who is going to think it's weird if you didn't go see Captain America but won't think it's at all weird that you didn't see American Hustle. There's another set of people for which it's the reverse. You could do all the summer (and pre- and post-summer, these days) blockbusters AND all the Oscar bait, if you want to be on the safe side, I guess, but there doesn't seem to be much overlap in the two in my experience.

TV-wise, similarly... well, no matter which group it is, you probably only need to watch 2-3 shows regularly to have some overlap with other people, if you're just looking for conversation topics. I don't watch GoT but I do watch Hannibal, that's worked out fine for me. But as far as depending on crowd, for example, you might want to do Big Bang Theory or Modern Family on the basis of their being the big popular sitcoms, but nobody's going to think you're not culturally literate if you're the sort of person who prefers Community.

Basically, there's not really a monolith of Things You Should See, it's very situational as far as what people expect you to be familiar with.
posted by Sequence at 7:35 AM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

A subscription to Entertainment Weekly magazine will take pretty good care of the TV, movie, and even some of the book and music literacy in one package. You can subscribe in print or digitally (or both). He can find recent back issues is some libraries to start off (and many a doctor's office.)

In terms of getting back into news and current events, there are good suggestions above, but I suggest at least while he is getting up to speed, he should subscribe and also read back issues of The Week magazine. It also has a print, or digital, or both type of subscription (very bottom of the web page has subscription info.) Yes, the Week has a bit of a bias, so he should supplement with other stuff.
posted by gudrun at 7:37 AM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the most enjoyable way to do this would be to watch the online archives of the Daily Show or other talk shows, and go to Wikipedia for any reference you don't get / guest you don't recognize. And for the stuff you're interested in, Wikipedia articles will lead you down a rabbit hole of other online content.
posted by neat graffitist at 8:12 AM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding the recommendation for the recently launched It seems like it was created for just this purpose. Otherwise, I'd recommend he or she spends some time on some of the news aggregation sites like reddit, Google News, or even Digg (I know -- I'm surprised that I'm recommending this last one, too). For entertainment, I tend to read AV Club. They're very on top of recent cultural references (maybe a little too so) and review new TV, movies, and music.
posted by HonorShadow at 8:37 AM on April 13, 2014

I must admit to being a little confused by the goal, here. If someone wants to broaden their range of cultural conversation topics to facilitate small-talk, or dating, don't they risk being someone who is just projecting a facade? Better to follow your existing interests, so that you can project genuine enthusiasm, especially in terms of dating.

With that sort of organic (rather than spoon-fed) growth in mind, I would suggest your friend use their existing interests to guide their search. Just by more actively rating the things they view on Netflix, they can be exposed to all sorts of previously unknown content via the matching algorithm. Engaging a bit more with ecommerce sites like Amazon, through post-purchase ratings and reviews, will expose your friend to a plethora of related books and media. Likewise, actually navigating to affiliated links on the sidebar of a favorite blog can help expand on an existing interest; I tend to not explore the ol' internet much, and doing this has helped me find cool new things.

But anyway, some specific suggestions (YFMMV):

- A.V. Club, a culture site that presents the usual reviews and interviews, generally covering "cooler" stuff, but with a sense of humor. The experience can be as highbrow or lowbrow as the reader desires. I especially like some of their ongoing themed features, such as "My Year of Flops." These typically tackle an area of culture in a way that gives an overview of theory, highlights hidden gems, and offers "stay away" warnings. I have learned of numerous musicians, directors, etc. in this manner. Just keep Wikipedia/IMDB/Netflix open in another tab, and you can gain and retain multiple leads in just a short time.

- Guardian or Al Jazeera are good sources for thorough domestic and world news coverage. It seems counter-intuitive to get US news from "foreign" sources, but that's the state of our media. Personally, I think our major cable/newspapers generally do us a disservice in their approach, especially in terms of politics and business coverage; too much focus on petty points-scored/horserace BS, while wearing several layers of soft gloves. The false "balance" thing is highly toxic to accurate understanding, and thoroughly entrenched, even on a formerly reputable provider like NPR. Not really news, but I'll second the recommendation for the New Yorker. Your friend may or may not find the vibe to their liking (sometimes painfully smug/clever), but there's always at least one fascinating long read on an interesting and unique topic in every issue.

- For a bit of everything, I've found the Awl (and related family of sites) to be a great grab-bag of musings and leads on a variety of topics. Sort of a smarter, less manipulative, version of Gawker Media.

And yeah; just following the trail of Wikipedia for a few hours (or all damn day, aarrrg) can really deepen a person's trivia/historical knowledge.
posted by credible hulk at 8:48 AM on April 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

This question is unanswerable in its current form. There is some remaining semblance of a monoculture, but one's stance on it depends wildly on where you live and who you hang out with. Stereotyping grossly: what is required for cultural literacy in NYC (which is the skew a lot of the media above will give you, but shit, watching Game of Thrones and Girls puts you halfway there) looks a lot different than what is required for cultural literacy in Tupelo, which looks a lot different from what is required for cultural literacy in Atlanta, which looks a lot different from what is required for cultural literacy in Silicon Valley, and so forth.

But if you really want to go broad: TV is going to get you a lot farther in this goal than movies, which (unfortunately) is probably going to get you farther than news, all of which are going to get you acres farther than books (whether best-selling or literary; the guy you're describing is as likely to get into a real conversation about Fifty Shades of Grey as he is about The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.). Add sports in with TV if you don't classify them as the same thing.
posted by dekathelon at 9:25 AM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Virtually all of his problems would be solved by listening to NPR regularly.

In addition to news -- coverage of which tends to move slowly enough and be comprehensive enough that it often feels repetitive to someone who listens every day -- there is lots of coverage of important cultural stuff. There's lots of talk about what movies are doing well in the box office rankings (which is shorthand for "what movie did people go see this week"), important cultural/pop-culture news, and some deeper talk about films, books, TV series, etc.

For the rest:

- Notice what movies get nominated for awards. Maybe see them if you want, but probably nobody will know if you didn't. I try to see one or two Oscar nominated movies that interest me every year, just for the sake of party/office conversation.

- Go into a Barnes & Noble or something, every once in a while. See the books that are prominently placed.

- Listen to what TV shows coworkers and friends are talking about. Watch those shows, if you want to be able to talk about them in social situations. I find that there's so much out there these days that there isn't a definitive list of shows you should be watching. Instead it tends to vary by social circle. Just watch what your friends watch.
posted by Sara C. at 11:26 AM on April 13, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for the input so far.

Just for emphasis, my friend has said that podcasts (I'd add radio to this as well) aren't a good fit for him - my understanding is that this is mostly because he has difficulty "absorbing" information aurally, but I believe he has also mentioned he doesn't have the extended commutes and other blocks of time that people usually use for listening to this stuff. All the print suggestions and websites, though, have been super helpful.

Also, for those who have said the question is unanswerable, my apologies. He's in the metro DC area, and as I understand it, he wants to just be able to participate in more engaging, culture- and news-based conversations with friends, coworkers, potential dates, etc. I hope that helps.
posted by justonegirl at 12:24 PM on April 13, 2014

I think there are worse ways to start than watching topical comedy shows— The Daily Show, Letterman, whatever. You might not learn much about various topics, but you'll get an idea of what the topics of the day are, maybe what the major points of disagreement are, etc. At worst, when one of the subjects comes up in conversation, you can say, "Oh yeah, Jon Stewart made a joke about that last week, but I didn't know what it was. What's the deal with that, anyway?" Your interlocutor will probably be happy to display their own knowledge, and bam, conversation. And, well, conversation leads to cultural literacy.

As long as you clearly don't get all of your info from late-night comedy, of course. But I think that kind of general contextual awareness goes a long way towards turning your lapses of knowledge from indications that you're a weird outsider into opportunities for conversation.
posted by hattifattener at 12:40 PM on April 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Entertainment Weekly. Each issue takes about half an hour to read, and subscriptions are cheap. I use it to keep up with shows I find unpleasant to watch (e.g., Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead) and get my little tastes of zeitgeist.
posted by purpleclover at 12:48 PM on April 13, 2014

I subscribe to Quartz's Daily Brief - the content skews towards business and global affairs, which I'm very happy with.
posted by hellopanda at 3:23 AM on April 14, 2014

> He's in the metro DC area

He should read the Washington Post every day (or every Sunday if every day doesn't work for him), at least the top two or three stories in every section even if it's the sort of news he doesn't normally care about. Fashion, gardening, entertainment, automotive, local politics, business, sports, etc. Everything. Home delivery will cost him almost nothing per day if he subscribes for a year or more, and he can share it with someone else (you?) so the paper gets double use.

And he should watch the Daily Show to help him laugh while getting a different perspective on what he has read.

That's all the force-fed secondhand cultural literacy he needs. If he wants more, he should get it straight: watch the most popular television programs, go to the most popular movies, go to the opera, go to the concerts, go to the museums, go to the baseball games, attend school board meetings and town planning meetings, and start helping out with a political organization that suits his tastes.
posted by pracowity at 3:49 AM on April 14, 2014

I think the PBS NewsHour is a good choice for news with context (even if he just watches the news summary at the beginning). The website has clips and transcripts for easy absorption.
posted by JDC8 at 7:09 PM on April 14, 2014

I'm shocked no one's mentioned TVTropes.

For one thing, it's a fantastic way to get the gist of any show/movie/game. Wikipedia is fine for dry technical and production information and lengthy, spoiler-filled plot summaries. But TVT cuts directly to the chase, telling you what something is about, what its tone is like, its pop-cultural context, etc.

It's also heavily cross-linked, making it easy to find related media, or media tied to a common trope.

But it's also valuable for its UsefulNotes, a collection of hundreds of articles on people, organizations, sports, religions, political systems, and lots more, all written in the same accessible crash-course style. Ultimate Fighting! The Meiji Restoration! Norse Mythology! The Silver Age of Comic Books! Schrodinger's Cat! It's glorious.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:02 PM on April 15, 2014

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