Hip: The History
By John Leland (Ecco, 405 pages)

If I'm talking about "the principled rebellion of Emerson and Thoreau in a landscape of outrageous violence, shaped by a theology of humor and payback," who do you think I'm talking about? If I'm John Leland, I'm talking about Bugs Bunny, one of the few non-African-American subjects (or at least non-African-American-inspired subjects) in this hefty lightning-bottling tome. From the outset, Leland acknowledges the difficulty of his task: that defining "hip," much less providing a history of it, is an effort doomed to be derailed by opinion and taste. Yet Leland seems determined to quantify the unquantifiable. And though he never really defines "hip" beyond that which is rebellious and/or vaguely black, he does an admirable job of sketching America's alternate cultural history. From minstrelsy and gangster heroes to punks and psychedelia, Leland tells a multifaceted and extraordinarily diffuse story, presented in a way that's less chronological than thematic. Although his propensity for Big Ideas (and unending awe of the magical hipness that he deems the very distillation of the African-American experience) tends to suck the life out of many of the subjects profiled, this is a well-researched and engaging read.

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