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The Great War on the Big Screen

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Yet it’s hard to believe its otherworldly landscape of gaping trenches, snarls of barbed wire and seas of mud existed as recently as that. For me, the Great War divides the world before from the world after: It’s arguably the difference between horses and cars, bayonets and machine guns. World War I introduced the horrors of large-scale violence, the danger of hubris and misguided patriotism, as well as the absurdity of war, and in the past century several films have enshrined the lessons of this tragic historical memory, notably Paths of Glory, Grand Illusion and Lawrence of Arabia. But below is my short list of three standout WWI movies that encompass the historical and emotional aspects of the war. Wings (1927) Wings is like a living propaganda poster for the First World War. The plot revolves around two Americans enlisted in the Air Service, though there’s also a fairly flimsy love story involving Clara Bow. But even while Wings amounts to a glossed-over glorification of war, the film’s authenticity lies in the technical skill of its spectacular biplane dogfights. Director William Wellman was an ex–flying ace himself, and the aerial footage is still stunning today. No CGI needed, the only way to recreate the Battle of Saint-Mihiel was to get in a plane and shoot it. King of Hearts (1966) World War I is inextricably linked to the avant-garde. For example, the Dadaist movement grew out of the horrors of the Great War. Many 1960s filmmakers drew a parallel between their own psychedelic era and Dadaist irreverence and rebelliousness; King of Hearts seamlessly meshes the two. The movie follows Private Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates), who gets deployed to a small French town where he falls in with the only townsfolk left—the eccentric inmates of the local insane asylum. King of Hearts is an overlooked gem, a wholehearted antiwar satire with great surrealist imagery that captures the spirit of disillusion. The film also throws a spotlight on those society deems insane and those deemed to be normal. Behind the Lines (1997) Behind the Lines is based on Pat Barker’s best-selling novel Regeneration , a fictional account of World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen based on their experiences as inpatients in a war hospital, along with their treatment by psychologist W.H.R. Rivers. Shell shock—or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as we now call it—was just beginning to be defined and understood at the time, as it was rampant among soldiers and getting harder to ignore as mere “cowardice.” Behind the Lines explores how soldiers dealt with this grim internal battle, while showcasing the enduringly powerful poetry of Sassoon and Owen, both popular in their time. It’s easy to get caught up in the facts and figures of a war that took place before your lifetime, but it’s important to remember that historical figures were still just people. Photo courtesy of Everett CULTUREMAP_Pat-Barkers-World-War-I

by Jenna Ipcar

Jul 28, 2014

I Scream, You Scream

It’s not summer in New York without the distinctive, and some would argue torturous, melody of the Mister Softee theme song. Many of us have fond memories of craning back our necks to order a red, white and blue pop or a vanilla soft serve with sprinkles, yet we rarely contemplate the surprisingly long, star-studded and oft-debated history of the frozen confection. Well, July is National Ice Cream Month, and while it doesn’t have the import of Black History Month or Women’s History Month, ice cream certainly deserves its 31 days in the sun. Food trends come and go (is anyone sick of kale and quinoa yet?), but ice cream’s popularity has only grown over its roughly 4,000 years. Everyone from the Romans to the Arabs to the Persians has laid claim to inventing the sweet treat, but the true creator of ice cream is likely the Chinese, who in 200 B.C. created a dish made from rice and milk that was then packed in snow. That’s where the rumors start. They say Alexander the Great loved eating snow flavored with honey. They say the Roman Emperor Nero sent slaves into the mountains to collect snow to be mixed with nectar, fruit pulp and honey (a homemade first-century snow cone). Biblical passages cite King Solomon enjoying “iced drinks” and it’s widely believed that Marco Polo returned from the Far East with a recipe for what is now called sherbet. And one myth has Catherine de’ Medici, who married Henry the II of France in 1533, arriving with a gaggle of Italian confectioners to introduce ice cream to Europe. Unsurprisingly, England would also like to be the emperor of ice cream, having offered up a printed menu from 1672 listing “iced cream” as one of the dishes served at the Feast of St. George in Windsor. But the Oxford English Dictionary states that the first print occurrence of iced cream was in 1688. When ice cream finally landed in America in the 1700s, founding fathers and first ladies alike went bananas. George Washington bought $200 dollars worth (about $3,000 today) in the summer of 1790, and Mount Vernon records show that the first president owned “several ice cream pots made from tin and pewter.” Thomas Jefferson loved the stuff too, creating his own recipe for vanilla ice cream, the first to be published in the U.S. Dolly Madison, wife of President James Madison, became known for serving the sweet concoction at her husband’s inauguration. Even Lincoln developed a taste for the dessert; his wife Mary Todd often hosted “strawberry parties,” where strawberries were served with cake and ice cream. Still, ice cream was a treat reserved for the wealthy until Nancy Johnson invented the “artificial freezer” in 1843, allowing for mass production of the dessert. In 1850 the first ice cream parlor opened in New York City, and soda fountains emerged in 1874. The latter served ice cream sodas in fluted glasses so large former Mayor Michael Bloomberg would be shaking his damn head. Ice cream became so popular, religious leaders condemned drinking ice cream sodas on Sunday and set up “blue laws” banning them. During World War II, ice cream was used to boost morale for the troops. In fact, the biggest producer of ice cream in 1943 was the United States Armed Forces. Even our top-ranking military could not have foreseen the bonanza ice cream would bring to people like Augustus Jackson (an early black entrepreneur), Howard Johnson, Tom Carvel and two hippies from New York, who took a correspondence course on how to make ice cream for $5, moved to Vermont and started a company in 1978 called Ben & Jerry’s, now worth over 200 million dollars. These days the United States produces 1.6 billion gallons of ice cream and related dairy products each year. The average American eats a staggering four gallons a year and a whopping 9 percent of milk produced in this country is devoted to ice cream. With National Ice Cream Month coming to a close, I raise my spoon to the most comforting food on earth. After a difficult breakup, a lost job or just a lousy day, eating ice cream directly out of the carton offers a kind of solace kale salad never could. Photo courtesy of Flickr CONNECTS_Ice-Cream

by Marian Fontana

Jul 25, 2014

Brando’s Feminine Side

“You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.” Those words, spoken by washed-up prizefighter Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) to his mob-connected brother Charley (Rod Steiger) in Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront, are among the most famous in American cinema. Brando liked to claim the contender scene was improvised, but writer Budd Schulberg’s original shooting script shows the words were spoken exactly as written. But Brando did show his improvisational prowess in On the Waterfront in a beautifully touching boy-meets-girl scene that includes an accidentally dropped white glove. When Malloy, who oozes testosterone, pulls a delicate glove over his beefy hand, he reveals a feminine vulnerability that proves to be his salvation. Director Elia Kazan cast Eva Marie Saint as the virginal Edie Doyle in On the Waterfront after testing the sexual chemistry between the actress and Brando. Saint remembers Kazan “whispered to me, ‘Eva Marie, you’re home alone, and your sister’s boyfriend is coming. Do not let him in the house.’ So here comes adorable Marlon, knocking on my make-believe door…and somehow he got in the room…he put the radio on, and we started dancing. The sparks just flew.” The sparks between Brando and Saint continued to fly during the freezing location shoot in Hoboken, New Jersey. Edie Doyle does not know Terry Malloy was involved in the death of her brother Joey. Alone in a public park Terry assures Edie, “You don’t have to be afraid of me. I ain’t gonna bite ya.” When Edie drops her white glove, Malloy scoops it off the ground. As Kazan remembers it, “I didn’t direct that; it happened.” Brando pulls at and plays with the glove, symbolically peeling away his brutish exterior. Unexpectedly, he puts her glove on his own hand. What other actor would make that choice? Suddenly Terry is all raw helplessness. He wants, he needs this girl. Terry asks Edie, “You don’t remember me do ya?” She replies, “I remembered you the first moment I saw you.” The sexual tension that began with the white glove climaxes with Malloy, channeling his inner Stanley Kowalski, breaking down Edie’s apartment door. “You love me Edie!” he shouts. But in a softer voice he tenderly pleads, “I want you to say it to me…I want you to say it to me.” Malloy knows her love is his only chance at redemption. Malloy rejects the traditional male code of silence—“Deaf and dumb. We don’t rat”—and testifies against the crooked union leaders. R. Barton Palmer, writing in Larger Than Life: Movie Stars of the 1950s, notes the box office success of On the Waterfront “flowed from Brando’s ability to project a sexual openness that seems to know no gender.” James Dean, Richard Gere, Johnny Depp, Ryan Gosling and James Franco have all built on the fluid sexuality of the bad-boy persona Brando introduced in Waterfront. According to film historian David Thomson, Brando “was so beautiful he altered our idea of maleness.” This year marks the 60th anniversary of On the Waterfront, and it would have also been the year Marlon Brando turned 90. Eva Maria Saint, who turned 90 this month, remembers him as the “finest actor I’ve ever worked with. And what a great-looking guy! I think it’s one of the saddest things that ever happened in our profession when Marlon lost the joy of acting.” Photo courtesy of Everett CONNECTS_On-the-Waterfront

by Colin J. Warnock

Jul 24, 2014

Trigger Warnings: Not for the Faint of Heart

In the current pop cultural discourse, the term trigger warning has become shorthand for oversensitivity, prudishness, censorship and an unwillingness to engage challenging subjects. And that’s a problem. If your first encounter with the concept of triggers was in an article in Salon or The New Yorker, you probably haven’t been diagnosed as being susceptible to what psychologists, therapists and other mental health professionals call “trauma triggering.” Essentially, individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other conditions affected by specific past experiences often have subjects that trigger psychological reactions for them. For some survivors, dealing with a triggering subject can be the difference between having a normal day and having a recurrence of a major psychological episode with extensive consequences. Recently, members of the academic community came out with fervent declarations against trigger warnings, after some professors were encouraged to put trigger warnings on syllabi. They argued that the idea amounted to a form of censorship, a limitation of what can and should be expected of discourse and critical inquiry in institutions of higher learning, and that the implementation of such warnings was a way of coddling students who are seeking an excuse not to engage with difficult or unpleasant material. If some administrators feel there’s a need for trigger warnings in curricula, however, it’s not because they want to become censors. It’s in response to a critical mass of students who want to sign up for rigorous and potentially emotionally stressful coursework but who are also vulnerable to being triggered. Trigger warnings aren’t for prudes, they are for people who have seen things they shouldn’t have and can’t forget. They are for soldiers who have watched people get blown apart or who have themselves blown people apart. They are for victims of rape. They are for survivors of extreme violence who are susceptible to involuntary, overwhelming, visceral reactions to subjects that relate to what destroyed their lives. They are for people who have the means to gauge whether something they’ve been warned about will affect them, and plan accordingly. Photo courtesy of Flickr CONNECTS_PTSD

by Emilie Ruscoe

Jul 23, 2014