The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re sharing stories from Daniel Engber, Sara Reinis, James Dolan, Irina Dumitrescu, and Amelia Tait.

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. A Peer-Reviewed Portrait of Suffering

Daniel Engber | The Atlantic | October 6, 2021 | 7,200 words

The best science stories are human stories, ones that show the impact of lab experiments, clinical investigations, and complicated data on people’s lives. Daniel Engber’s poignant profile of the Sulzer family falls squarely in this camp. When three-year-old Liviana suffered a traumatic brain injury in the Sulzers’ backyard, her mother and father — a bioengineer who specializes in regenerative medicine and a professor of rehabilitative robotics, respectively — were forced to bring their work home. They mustered their expertise to help Livie, but quickly met the limits of the technology they’d spent their careers developing and championing. How, then, could they heal her, and themselves? The answers are surprising. I was moved by Engber’s portrayal of scientific minds challenged to reconsider the lens through which they analyze the world; of a family navigating protracted trauma; and of the love, patience, and curiosity that keep the Sulzers’ hope alive. —SD

2. The Great Beyond

Sara Reinis | Real Life | October 7, 2021 | 2,299 words

I’ve been contemplating how social media has changed the way we grieve for a while now, ever since my best friend died 10 years ago. I’d experienced mourning in a new, distributed way: collectively and on screen, as his friends across the U.S. and his relatives from Nairobi I’d never met all gathered on his Facebook profile over weeks, months, years. Some people left quick comments, as if they passed by a cemetery to leave flowers; others lingered, typing as if they were communicating with him in real time. How was social media changing the way we experience loss? For Sara Reinis, it’s also been a decade since a loved one — her brother — passed away. In her recent essay for Real Life, she stirs up many questions for me again, plus new ones. What does it mean when we interact with the Facebook and Instagram profiles of deceased loved ones and celebrities as pilgrimage sites — digital shrines and tombstones we (re)visit, deliberately or not, across an algorithm-powered internet? And what about someone like me, who has since deleted Facebook and Instagram? Am I missing out on novel, ever-evolving ways to mourn? (Should I be intermingling with the avatars of the dead?) After all, as Reinis writes, “the dead will outnumber the living” on Facebook by 2100. She asks thoughtful questions, and I’m now thinking about the idea she poses that the Western approach to grief — a mostly private and “ceremoniously finite” event like a funeral — may evolve into something very public, social, and continuous. And the biggest question she asks looms over me: Can we even trust tech giants with our digital remains? —CLR

3. My Father, The Hitman

James Dolan | D Magazine | October 11, 2021 | 5,021 words

Sometimes all it takes is a single sentence to draw you fully and completely into a story and James Dolan does just that with the opening to “My Father, the Hitman.” “My dad had gotten out of prison, and, for the first time in years, we were sitting down to dinner. It turned out to be the last time I ever saw him alive.” This fantastic portrait is filthy with detail, the kind that makes you want to slow down and savor every word. —KS

4. Tongue Stuck

Irina Dumitrescu | The Rumpus | October 12, 2021 | 2,662 words

Irina Dumitrescu considers the beauty of her Romanian heritage and her decision to teach the language to her son Maxi, so that he can more deeply understand and appreciate his extended family. “I wanted him to know his grandparents in Romanian. I wanted him to know how funny and smart they are, to sense that spirit that is so often lost in a second language.” This is more than just a beautiful essay on identity. Dumitrescu looks critically at her Romanian skills but her words become poetry to me as a reader — despite not knowing the language — when she uses them with such deep intimacy: “I spoke to him in the way that felt most natural, and that meant the language I’d heard when I was small. This was the language in which I was cuddled and pampered, caressed, and sometimes scolded. I suddenly understood how wonderful Romanian is for talking to children. How many darling diminutives I had ready for each part of his body. He had tiny fingers, degețele; a wee belly, burtic; a sweet little nose, năsuc; and dear little feet, picioruțe. Romanian has a treasure of endings to make each noun Lilliputian: -uțuri, -eluri, -ioruri. English seemed then a bulky, hulking way to speak, and for the first time I could not believe that there were people who used the same heavy word for the coarse fist of a grown man and the delicate hand of a newborn.” —KS

5. The Death of Ronald McDonald

Amelia Tait | Vice | October 4, 2021 | 1,600 words

Within the first 15 minutes of a family road trip, I would start the chant: “Can we stop at McDonald’s?” Every British motorway service station seemed to have one, and they were always adorned with Ronald McDonald — Ronald climbing frames, Ronald slides, or just plain old Ronald statues. So it was with great interest that I read Amelia Tait’s fun piece about the demise of this iconic clown in British advertising. (He clings on in the United States with a few in-person appearances according to his U.S.-based Instagram account.) Despite a last-ditch effort, with “a new look, swapping his jumpsuit for a red blazer and a bowtie” he quietly slipped out of the U.K. in 2014 and, as Tait finds out, everyone seems to be rather cagey as to why, cryptically claiming they “are not allowed to talk” as if Ronald is part of the underground clown mafia. Despite these obstacles, Tait jumps wholeheartedly into this mystery and discovers that Ronald’s decline is due to a combination of the ethics of advertising fast food to children, and the realization that a clown with a red wig is just plain creepy. I really enjoyed Tait’s enthusiasm and humor as she explores why Ronald McDonald, along with his sidekick the Hamburglar, are out of a job. —CW