Those "Philosophy and" books you see in bookstores
There is a series of books out in bookstores across the country which feature articles by various contemporary academic philosophers who take on pop culture--the "Philosophy and..." series. You've probably seen them. Topics include Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Superheroes, the Matrix, Seinfeld, and a half dozen more. I do not like these books.
They anger me NOT because of their attempt to make philosophy accessible, NOR because they bring philosophy and pop culture together. I applaud both of those attempts--more reading is always good for everyone, and I think pop culture is a field that should be studied just like any other. I think these books could have been good--thus, what I dislike is A) how fluffy the specific essays are, and B) how reversible the essays are. I'll explain what I mean after one caveat to the other side.
I do not expect contemporary academic philosophers (hereafter referred to as CAPs) to do philosophy the same way that previous philosophers have. There is so much information available today, and there are so many fields of study in which one can become an expert, that few people approach "knowledge" the way that, say, Aristotle or Kant did: as something that one can approach holistically and have the final say on. Kant says in multiple places that everyone must either accept or refute his arguments; but this is not an exhaustive dilemma, as they are safely ignored by most people. I think this is a good thing. CAPs can focus on the history of philosophy; on feminism; on ethics; on one specific person; on logic; on science; or on anything they wish. For example, at the conferences I have been to, CAPs will present papers on Some Famous Philosopher's Argument Against Subjectivism in Ethics instead of their own exhaustive treatise on the subject.
Most of the essays in these books are explorations of philosophical concepts alongside critiques of pop culture. A philosopher whom I met at a conference once and with whom I have corresponded, Dr. Harald Thorsrud, has contributed multiple essays to the series: his are the exception to the rule. In the Harry Potter book he brings in Aristotelian concepts of friendship (which was considered a virtue by The Master of Those Who Know) to analyze Rowling's characters in an insightful and enjoyable way. Most of the essays, though, consist simply of some thoughts about philosophy mixed around with some thoughts about pop culture. "Here's a summary of existentialism. Homer Simpson sure is amusing!" I wish the essays had been more aggressive, and I've seen the few that actually do make bold cases for things get their subjects totally backwards (like the essay in the LOTR book arguing that the elves, quintessential essentialists [HA!] in my view, are existentialists). That's what I meant by reversibility, as I said above: I could take most of the essays in the books, make the exact opposite case in the same flimsy form that the author did, and still have a paper.
The philosophy that stretches all of us and makes us better people is found in the books that (as I explained above) no one writes anymore, and if the "Philosophy and" books succeed in getting people to read Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, and the rest then I'll be happy. But this was a real opportunity to do some hard-hitting writing, and most of the writers took a pass.
Let me know what you think.