The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re sharing stories from Tamara Dean, Samanth Subramanian, Sasha Plotnikova, Steve Edwards, and Caity Weaver.

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

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1. Safer Than Childbirth

Tamara Dean | The American Scholar | March 4th, 2022 | 3,700 words

Anti-abortion advocates seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade would have you think that the practice of terminating pregnancies is a new phenomenon, brought on by the rise of feminism and the (imaginary) moral decay of America. As Tamara Dean lays bare in this essay, this is nothing short of a lie. Surveying historical literature and using Nancy Ann Harris, a woman who died in 1876 in a rural Wisconsin county, as a lens into the past, Dean shows how abortion was a legally and morally acceptable way for a woman to care for her health, until misogynistic, racist forces decided it shouldn’t be. “Every woman, including Nancy, would have known friends, sisters, or cousins who died or were debilitated while giving birth,” Dean writes. “They would have known those who took pains to avoid it.” This essay is a necessary corrective, and beautifully written to boot.  —SD

2. The Lost Jews of Nigeria

Samanth Subramanian | The Guardian | April 26, 2022 | 6,635 words

As a kid growing up Jewish in a very not-Jewish part of the country, I was always fascinated to hear about places where communities had taken root in seemingly very not-Jewish parts of the larger world. Ethiopia. India. China. Yet, before reading Samanth Subramanian’s deeply descriptive travelog in The Guardian, I was unaware of a much newer version of the phenomenon happening in Nigeria. Estimates vary, but thousands of native Nigerians have taken up the faith in the past few decades, drifting first to messianic Christianity and then to full Old-Testament sidelocks-and-prayer-shawl orthodoxy. There’s a sense of cultural commonality in there, for sure — most Nigerian Jews are of the Igbo people, and attribute the surprising amount of ritual overlap to a lineage descended from the tribe of Gad — but in their internet-enabled assimilation of “conventional” Judaism, adding the sanctioned to the syncretic, there’s also a thrumming pulse of mishpuchah. Family. Home is where you make it, and so is homeland.  —PR

3. A Cage by Another Name

Sasha Plotnikova | Failed Architecture | April 20, 2022 | 2,089 words

Can tiny homes get people off the streets safely and humanely? In this sharp, critical look into the tiny shed camps of Los Angeles, Sasha Plotnikova reports on the Arroyo Seco Tiny Home Village along the 110 freeway, which was built to help tenants transition out of houselessness. But the village’s dehumanizing rules and inhospitable conditions create anything but a safe and secure environment, and no amount of whimsy — in the form of colorful, cheery murals — can hide the carceral nature of the camp. “Tiny sheds must be understood not as homes or as housing,” Plotnikova writes, “but as an architecture of containment and banishment.” A member of Street Watch LA, an organization dedicated to protecting the poor and unhoused, said to her: It’s a housing solution not actually meant for unhoused people, but rather for the NIMBYs who prefer them to just disappear.  —CLR

4. When Are Men Dangerous? On Agency, Imagination, and What a Teacher Can Do

Steve Edwards | Lit Hub | April 15th, 2022 | 4,080 words

In this thoughtful essay at Lit Hub, Steve Edwards contemplates what it means to be considered dangerous, whether that danger is in the form of words, ideas, beliefs, or violence. As Edwards considers what danger means and the forms it can take, he looks at conscientious objectors, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, as well as his own creative writing students as they struggle to make a life for themselves and earn a living in America. “Nineteen is a liminal age. Absent a chance to define ourselves, other forces stand at the ready to do so for us—family members, cultural traditions, career trajectories…Essays are made things, I tell them, equal parts critical thinking and creative engagement. I suggest that if they can change words on a page, they might also change their lives. Had Tsarnaev been a student in my class, I might have encouraged him to write about his experiences as an immigrant or what drew him to want to study sea life…Those most likely to tell the truth about their lives are the ones with nothing left to lose…Unfortunately, you can’t escape an ideology by hoping it changes. You end up becoming it instead…In my classes a pen is a tool for expanding a student’s potential, not limiting it through fear.” —KS

5. I Lived the #VanLife. It Wasn’t Pretty.

Caity Weaver | The New York Times Magazine | April 20, 2022 | 4,410 words

Sometimes it is fun to read about someone having a terrible time. Before I am judged too harshly for this, I offer you Caity Weaver’s diverting and self-deprecating essay in defense. She spends nearly 5,000 words whinging about just how much she hated living #VanLife for a few days. (Her editor made her do it. I am glad he did.) There is something pure about such things as Weaver eating fistfuls of cheese-its in the dark when figuring out the camp stove is just too much. Her descriptions — coated in cheesy crumbs rather than sugar — are wholly relatable and throw two fingers up to the Instagram illusion. I am thankful for this, being guilty of falling into the thrall of the #VanLife tag myself, endlessly scrolling through pictures of beautiful people looking wistfully at beautiful things — all through flung-open-van-doors. I have even found myself on Craigslist looking for camper vans for sale (expensive as it turns out, I blame the tag). Fortunately, this van exposé has given me another reason to stick to my tent. —CW