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

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1. The American Prison System’s War on Reading

Alex Skopic | Protean | November 29th, 2021 | 2,300 words

You’ve almost certainly heard about the disingenuous furor over critical race theory and about attempts by conservative politicians to ban books from school libraries. But what about the war on reading being waged behind bars? States are restricting prisoners’ access to cheap used books, forcing those who wish to read to place full-priced orders with the likes of Barnes & Noble. Authorities have banned “urban” novels and Angela Davis, but seem to have no problem with Mein Kampf and The Turner Diaries. Protean is a proudly leftist publication, and Alex Skopic is a proponent of prison abolition, but limiting people’s access to knowledge and ideas should also alarm more politically moderate readers. “Legitimate power does not fear discussion and study,” Skopic writes. “Rather, the prohibition of those things is a tacit acknowledgment of its illegitimacy.” —SD

2. The Great Escape

David Dayen | American Prospect | November 29, 2021 | 7,011 words

The pandemic didn’t mark the beginning of exploitative labor practices, but it certainly shined a 10,000-watt spotlight onto the issue. No matter how many exposés one reads of a single company’s draconian practices, though, sometimes it takes a cover-the-waterfront piece like Dayen’s to drive home how ubiquitous the nightmare is. This isn’t a piece that frames The Great Resignation as a rainbow path to greener pastures; rather, it’s a chorus of horror stories from those celebrated as essential workers, only to find themselves so overburdened that they have no choice but to walk away. But change may be on the horizon. As Dayen points out, the two largest labor uprisings in American history occurred in 1919 and 1946 — right after World Wars I and II, when infantrymen returned from Europe hailed as heroes and then found that their jobs were significantly less than heroic. They rebelled against menial work inappropriate to their sacrifice. Today’s low-wage workers, shattered by collective trauma, have similarly been punched once too often, after being exalted all too briefly as America’s backbone. And with more than 100,000 workers striking since March 2020, Dayen lays out the history and future of how these workers might just have more power than their corporate employers care to acknowledge. —PR

3. ‘Am I even fit to be a mom?’ Diaper need is an invisible part of poverty in America

Chabeli Carrazana | The 19th | November 23, 2021 | 4,612 words

Imagine not being able to afford diapers for your child and using a sanitary pad or a towel instead. Imagine sending your toddler to school in a soiled overnight diaper. Imagine skipping meals throughout the week, or pawning belongings just to buy a new, fresh pack. This is the reality for many low-income families in rural Missouri — and across the U.S. At The 19th, Chabeli Carrazana reports on this silent struggle to provide diapers, which aren’t covered by federal assistance programs like food stamps or WIC. As Carrazana reports from the communities of the Ozarks, oftentimes local diaper banks are the only real solution — yet they, too, struggle to keep up and help the many families across dozens of counties in need. Excellently and empathetically reported, this piece is an important read on an invisible part of poverty. —CLR

4. Grateful to Witness

Devin Kelly | Tracksmith | November 24, 2021 | 1,894 words

Devin Kelly is a writer to watch. I know this because I’ve had the great fortune to edit the essays he’s published here at Longreads. Kelly’s latest, for Tracksmith, brought me hope, here at the end of this long, stressful year. I felt tired and depleted when I read the piece, but the essay’s witness to celebration — to pure joy — filled me up. Kelly’s work exemplifies what truly great writing can do; how one thoughtful human being can spark an epiphany, simply with words on a page. Great essays like this remind me why I read — to discover a new way to connect with the world. “We are met, each day, with the various limits of our various individual existences. Maybe life is not about turning inward in the face of those challenges and trying to determine how we can each break those limits. No. Maybe life is about turning outward to acknowledge each person’s daily act of trying in this collectively trying world. Maybe life is, in part, about celebration.” —KS

5. Who is Jellycat Really For?

Carla Ciccone | Romper | November 7, 2021 | 2,687 word

Carla Ciccone’s essay is as soothing as “the coziest and cutest stuffies” that it profiles. The uninitiated may not realize these stuffed toys are made by Jellycat, “a jaunty British soft toy company that’s been around since 1999,” but those in the know are regulars to their online store — sometimes rushing there when new releases are revealed on the subreddit Jellcatplush. These stuffies are not just for kids — adults have realized the “sweet solace” in cuddling a Bashful Puppy or Smudge Elephant. (Smudge’s biggest fan declaring in a review “I would die for this elephant.”) The company gives this a knowing nod on its website, describing a stuffie in the shape of a block of blue cheese as “a strong little scamp, with vintage vibes and dairy daring,” a line which, as Ciccone notes, “no millennial could possibly resist.” Ciccone takes a joyful dive into this phenomenon, fully embracing it after having her own love affair with a Bashful Duck. Take a look, it is a fun piece that will put a smile on your face, and maybe even a stuffie on your bed … personally I am considering the “daisy-chomping diva” that is Sherri Sheep. —CW