Here are stories from 2018 that captured Longreads editors’ imaginations as deserving of ongoing attention. If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.
Writer and contributing editor, Longreads
Always Open, The Eureka Hotel (Jamey Hatley, Strange Horizons)
The July 30 issue of Strange Horizons, a monthly journal dedicated to speculative fiction, focused on narratives of the southeastern United States, and were all written by indigenous authors and other writers of color. In the stories they selected and nurtured, editors Sheree Renee Thomas, Erin Roberts, and Rasha Abdulhadi brought to light a multiciplicitious South, ripe with the region’s “history, music, food, language,” yet sensitive to the hauntings and challenges still left unresolved.
My favorite story of the issue, “Always Open, the Eureka Hotel,” by Memphis-born writer Jamey Hatley, is an innovative, life-stirring feat of storytelling that resists the boundaries of genre and the page itself to dive deep into the interiors of its characters, into the heart and marrow of a place. A young Black girl in Jim Crow Mississippi has been caught in an affair with a mysterious, blues-playing lover; her protective father and brother drive her North, toward Chicago, away from the trouble her lover can bring. Guided by the Negro Motorist Green Book and the Negro Yearbook and Directory, the family journeys through sundown towns and has a menacing encounter with a white police officer. Their stop in Memphis at the Eureka Hotel changes the young girl’s life: “You thought you were hungry for what your lover could teach you, but you were hungry for yourself.”
Based on deep research (with thorough footnotes!) into Southern foodways, the traditions of conjure and rootwork, and the queer history of the blues, Hatley has created a world in between the real one and a fictional one, between now and the past, to reveal something truer about the South and feminine longing and hope than anything I’ve read in a long time.
Essays editor, Longreads
Neither of my parents was exactly who I thought they were. (Elizabeth Wurtzel, The Cut)
Agent and former editor Betsy Lerner once wrote, “Editing Elizabeth Wurtzel is like editing a hurricane, like producing Courtney’s albums, like mainlining sticky blue ink.” Wurtzel’s writing is explosive, raw, and bracingly candid. It’s often stream-of-consciousness and slightly disorganized. It isn’t for everyone, but I am a huge long-standing fan. I’ve devoured her memoirs (not just Prozac Nation but also her addiction/recovery memoir, More, Now, Again) and greet every personal essay she writes with baited breath. Wurtzel has always taken the supremely shitty cards life has dealt her — crippling depression, addiction, advanced breast cancer — and written bravely and compellingingly about them, definantly busting stigmas at every turn. Turns out the deck held at least one more difficult suprise for her. In this essay, Wurtzel reveals the bombshell that was recently dropped on her — that her father was not Donald Wurtzel, but rather civil rights era photojournalist Bob Adelman. But there’s more to this piece than just that revelation; there’s also an admirable balancing of her anger with thoughtfulness and compassion as she tries to put into context and make sense of her mother’s choice to keep the secret of her affair (and her daughter’s true paternity) for 50 years. Oh, she drew one more shitty card: The piece was published the week between Christmas and New Years, when everyone is checked out, and shortly after New York Magazine added a pay wall that doesn’t work properly and leaves long term subscribers (like me) no choice but to wait for the print edition to arrive.
Books editor, Longreads
The Screwer and the Screwed (Lauren Oyler, The Baffler)
This is one of my favorite book reviews of 2018, about one of 2018’s most overlooked books, authored by one of our least-known greatest living writers. Luckily living. As Oyler recounts, DeWitt once wrote that she had tried to impart to an interviewer that “there is a genuine risk of suicide if too much work is disrupted and destroyed.” The problem is systemic, DeWitt was trying to tell the interviewer. The publishing industry is “committed to the disempowerment of the author at every single stage,” and a writer like her can come to be haunted by the “dead books” that “the system strangles….in the head.”
DeWitt is often painted as an “unlucky” author because of her harrowing publishing backstory (white-out plays a terrifying role), a backstory which Oyler covers in perfect accord with her critical analysis of DeWitt’s latest work — because with DeWitt, the art and the artist are very much not separable. In fact, the book Oyler reviews here is a collection of short stories in which DeWitt is very obviously, though masterfully, criticizing that professional class of people who tinker with artists’ work in order to maximize profits — or, more to the point, the people who idiot-proof smart people’s work in order to maximize profits. After all, as Oyler says, “in the business of books, being smart doesn’t get you very far.”
Oyler understands DeWitt as, rather than an unlucky author, a cursedly perceptive one, attuned to the absurdity of a publishing industry that is little interested in art, which bullies writers of genius (of which DeWitt is certainly one — as Oyler puts it, DeWitt’s first novel The Last Samurai is “conspicuously a masterpiece”) to be less idiosyncratic or experimental. Her bad luck is not that her genius isn’t recognized; it’s that she too clearly recognizes that a great deal of the editing she’s experienced has been an attempt to dumb her down. In an exciting and frisson-y synthesis of reviewer and subject, Oyler adopts DeWitt’s viewpoint to criticize another of DeWitt’s (totally sympathetic!) reviewers for not truly understanding what art is. It makes for a harsh and very DeWittian ending to a review-cum-indictment of a book industry that worships “at the altar of the blurb.”
Ira Glass’s Commencement Speech at the Columbia Journalism School Graduation (Ira Glass, This American Life)
It’s no surprise that Ira Glass is a pro at delivering speeches given the countless monologues he has recorded at This American Life, and I was delighted that he made his commencement speech available to the masses. There are so many gems in this speech, but I especially loved his bit about editing:
I believe that gifted editors are rarer than talented reporters. If you have the knack for it, I just wanna say: go for it. I really want to give you a nudge of encouragement in that direction. It’s a wonderful job and journalism needs you.
Editing is crucial because in my experience anything you try to make – what YOU want is for the story to be AMAZING. But what the story wants to be is MEDIOCRE OR WORSE. And the entire process of making the story is convincing the story to not be what it wants to be, which is BAD.
And turning it from the bad thing it’s trying to be, where the sources are inarticulate, and you don’t know how to structure it, and the structure you make doesn’t work, into the shining gleaming jewel that you have in your heart … that is editing!
He also has this really great bit in there about how to get people to care about stories that have a difficult time breaking through the current news cycle, like coverage about refugee camps, which people don’t like to hear about because it’s depressing. I’d quote this too, but at this point, you should just go ahead and read the whole thing.
Audience editor, Longreads
‘The Trains Are Slower Because They Slowed the Trains Down’ (Aaron Gordon, The Village Voice)
Aaron Gordon‘s Village Voice story on how a single accident two decades ago set New York City’s transit system on a path to disaster led me to his mesmerizing series on the L Train Shutdown (that wasn’t), which led me to subscribe to Gordon’s newsletter Signal Problems, which led me, a lifelong New Yorker, to give up and move to Texas. Okay, the subway led me to give up and move to Texas. It was bad. It was really, really, really bad.
I’m still reading Signal Problems for the top-notch transit reporting, which remains admirably rational in the face of the lingering stress and perennial fury millions of straphangers feel after being physically trapped inside so much bureaucratic chaos. I still just wish I could understand — really, truly, honestly understand — why what should be a world-class subway system is so incredibly broken. Thanks to Gordon bringing so much needed order to the whole morass, I’m that much closer to finally grasping what in the world was ever even happening. That much closer… from afar. Because I’m not doing it while my blood pressure rises on the 2/3 platform at 116th and Lenox anymore.
Fact-checker and contributing editor, Longreads
Trashed (Kiera Feldman, ProPublica)
It feels a bit like cheating to recommend Kiera Feldman’s “Trashed” series as a story to read, since it consists of 15 stories to date, but it’s worth reading them all. Feldman has done a magisterial job chronicling the nocturnal world of New York City’s commercial trash haulers, a big business with a long and shady history. The series covers (among other things) how dangerous conditions are for workers, ersatz “independent” unions that fail to protect workers, and how the industry lobbies against reform. These are stories of corruption and abuse that really aren’t to be missed.
Editor and essayist, Longreads
Skiing & Booze: Does Colorado Have A Drinking Problem? (Tracy Ross, 5280 Magazine)
One of my closest childhood friends just died from liver failure. I admit this loss might have produced a bias in me as a reader, but even before he died, Tracy Ross’ story for 5280 resonated deeply. Drinking has become so casually integrated into the daily lives of many outdoorsy types who skate, hike, bike, and snowboard, like myself, that it’s easy to disregard alcohol’s harmful effects on otherwise healthy active people. There’s the beer at lunch. Drinks after work. Trail running can include beer carbo-loading, just as a day on the slopes involves frequent stops at the bar for many people. Of course, dinner requires wine. Ross looks specifically at the role drinking plays in Colorado’s skiing culture, but her examination extends beyond the Rockies’ slopes to include American outdoor recreation at large.
Mixing reporting with her own personal experience as a boozy skier, she shows how party culture and outdoor culture have merged too closely for everyone’s health, and shows how those of us who are accustomed to dopamine rushes and risk-taking are more inclined to abuse alcohol. Don’t get me wrong: cold beer pairs well with many things, and I love sipping Scotch. But Ross’ story asks us to reconsider alcohol’s place in our lives. Maybe it’s time to drink less and shred more? Why can’t we just enjoy the outdoors on our own sometimes? These are fair questions, even if your liver still functions properly.
Editor and head of fact-checking, Longreads
Kanye West Vs Fame (Paul Thompson, Noisey)
You’d be forgiven if you forgot Kanye West released an album this past year. Ye—his eighth studio record—burned brightly for just a moment, just long enough for you to remember to download after its listening party in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but forgotten after albums he produced for Kid Cudi and Nas dropped in subsequent weeks. We had instantaneously all moved on. Think about how incredulous that sounds: from The College Dropout to Yeezus (and sure, Life of Pablo, with which he is likely still tinkering), Kanye’s discography had always felt alive long after the first stream or download. We all vividly remember, though, the other Kanye news of 2018: the MAGA hat, the Oval Office visit, the TMZ ramblings about slavery and the subsequent “Kanye, I don’t think you’re thinking anything.”
When Paul Thompson‘s essay dropped this October, I read it, and then I reread it. Kanye was an artist that I truly believed to be groundbreaking, revolutionary, and insightful. Thompson’s thorough examination of his influence as an artist, and explanation of its waning power—which he rightly notes isn’t just limited to Kanye—was one of the most impactful pieces I’ve read all year. It’s not that Kanye has run out of ideas. It’s that the genesis and power of those ideas is unrecognizable from the Kanye who dominated pop culture these past two decades.
Senior editor, Longreads
Japan’s Prisons Are a Haven for Elderly Women (Shiho Fukada, Bloomberg Businessweek)
Dying Alone in Japan: The Industry Devoted to What’s Left Behind (Adam Minter, Bloomberg Businessweek)
A Generation in Japan Faces a Lonely Death (Norimitsu Onishi, The New York Times)
When I look back on my reading for Longreads in 2018, there were three stories that share a thread that remain in my thoughts. All three concern the utter loneliness of aging in Japan. With a population of 127 million people, Japan has the most rapidly aging society on the planet. At Bloomberg Businessweek, Shiho Fukada wrote of how some elderly Japanese women have become serial petty criminals. Their aim? To receive a jail sentence, where they’re sure to receive regular meals and companionship — two things they struggle to find on the outside. Also at Bloomberg Businessweek, Adam Minter wrote of a booming industry in Japan: firms whose speciality is cleaning out the apartments of deceased Japanese who have no close relatives to rehome their possessions.
Finally, and perhaps the most poignant of the three, at the New York Times, Norimitsu Onishi wrote of a phenomenon that’s becoming so common in Japan that it now has a name: the “lonely death.” It’s a situation where elderly individuals often live in extreme isolation, albeit only a few feet from neighbors on all sides, “trapped in a demographic crucible of increasing age and declining births.” Their fate? A “lonely death” where their body may remain undiscovered in their small government apartment for days (or even years) because family is distant both physically and emotionally, and friends have all long since passed away. I’m forever haunted by the thought of the two Japanese woman — mere acquaintances — who live across a courtyard from one another and agree to a pact to avoid the saddest of fates:
So Mrs. Ito asked a neighbor in the opposite building for a favor. Could she, once a day, look across the greenery separating their apartments and gaze up at Mrs. Ito’s window?
Every evening around 6 p.m., before retiring for the night, Mrs. Ito closed the paper screen in the window. Then in the morning, after her alarm woke her at 5:40 a.m., she slid the screen back open.
“If it’s closed,” Mrs. Ito told her neighbor, “it means I’ve died.”
Mrs. Ito felt reassured when the neighbor agreed, so she began sending the woman gifts of pears every summer to occasionally glance her way.