Get the Longreads Top 5 Email
Kickstart your weekend by getting the week’s best reads, hand-picked and introduced by Longreads editors, delivered to your inbox every Friday morning.
In this week’s installment:
- How Canada is failing its most vulnerable citizens.
- Teju Cole considers the Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
- The toxic workplace culture behind the hit TV show Lost.
- A piece highlighting Succession‘s excellent writing.
- The enduring popularity of Guinness World Records.
Meagan Gillmore | The Walrus | May 30, 2023 | 5,422 words
What does it say about a country where it’s easier to request medically assisted death than it is to get support for a disability? Tarra Carlson lives with autism and ADHD. Her provincial disability benefits ceased because her husband earns too much money. She receives about $800 CDN per month from the Canada Pension Plan. “If her husband dies before her, she may have no way to access financial support,” writes Meagan Gillmore for The Walrus. “She’ll lose her biggest advocate and support system—and her home.” We already know that Canada has explored expanding the Medical Assistance in Death (MAiD) program to include those with disabilities, angering disability advocates. Gillmore’s terrifying piece reveals that some with disabilities facing poverty from the margins of Canadian society may choose MAiD, failed by a crumbling and byzantine Canadian health care system. For the government of Canada, what started as a program to allow the terminally ill to die on their own terms is starting to become a way for the government to legally rid itself of those they have failed: their most vulnerable citizens. —KS
Teju Cole | The New York Times Magazine | May 25, 2023 | 3,212 words
I’ve wrestled with what to emphasize about Teju Cole’s excellent essay on Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, the subject of a museum exhibition so popular that Vogue compared the clamor for tickets to Beyoncé fans reacting to news of the Renaissance tour. I could talk about Cole’s evocative language. (“Vermeer tightens his cord of suggestion around us.”) Or his argument for why it’s imperative to “look for trouble”—meaning, the influence of brutality—in classic European paintings. (“It opens them up, and what used to be mere surface becomes a portal.”) Or his ability to capture the feeling of looking at Vermeer’s quotidian scenes. (“Our breath as viewers is collectively held because we don’t want to interrupt whatever this is.”) But no—my favorite part of Cole’s essay is his quiet indictment of mass appreciation and art-world dogma. He considers both the marketing of and response to the Vermeer exhibition. “That it represented a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience was taken as gospel,” he writes. “(And yet, how many of our best encounters with art have happened in a minor museum on a quiet day? What moment, fully inhabited, isn’t ‘once in a lifetime’?)” In Cole’s telling, interfacing with art is a singular act, defined by the quiddities of context and a viewer’s existence, and to suggest otherwise is to miss the point of what art can do to us, and for us. It’s fitting that he ends the piece by describing a Vermeer painting in which the subject looks out of the frame, seeming to single out each individual who passes before it. “This gaze has held yours for centuries,” Cole writes, “suspending time on your behalf.” —SD
Maureen Ryan | Vanity Fair | May 30, 2023 | 8,682 words
Characters of color sidelined to secondary storylines. Writers punished for standout scripts. Casual racism. Bullying. In Maureen Ryan’s piece for Vanity Fair—which is an excerpt from Burn It Down, her new book about power and complicity in Hollywood—she digs into what went wrong behind the scenes of Lost, particularly in the writers room. Onscreen, the hit TV show had a diverse set of characters, but its workplace culture was extremely toxic. Drawing on years of conversations with some of the show’s actors and writers—including Harold Perrineau, the Black actor who played Michael—Ryan paints an ugly picture of a show loved by many, me included. While reading this, it’s hard not to recall the things that didn’t sit quite right when I first watched the show: What happened to Michael? Why, despite the international cast, did the show never fully feel inclusive? How, after such a promising start, did the show eventually devolve into a battle between two white dudes? Lost changed TV as we knew it, placing brilliant writing and showrunners in the spotlight. But these “genius” minds—Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof—enabled this toxic environment, while their responses to these allegations today are disappointing yet sadly unsurprising. —CLR
Katie Baker | The Ringer | May 31, 2023 | 2,415 words
Yes, Succession has run its course. Yes, you might be tired of talking or thinking about the beloved HBO drama. You might even wonder why, having edited a whole reading list about the show that we ran last week, I’m including yet another piece about it. The answer is because it’s exactly the kind of writing TV criticism deserves. It’s not yet another recap, not another piece about the show’s #iykyk costuming choices or grandiose real-estate porn. Instead, it takes on the show’s fundamental substrate: the writing. Much has already been made of Succession‘s Veep-level profanity, but Katie Baker dives past the f-bombs (and the deceptively circular plotting) to praise how creator Jesse Armstrong and the rest of the show’s writers capture the inconsistent cadences of actual human communication, hyperarticulate one moment, elliptical the next. Even the stage directions, she points out, breathe life into the show: “Alongside all the unforgettable quips that viewers have heard and chuckled at and turned into fancams or memes, there are also lots of lasting turns of phrase—ones written between the lines—that represent conversations not between the show’s characters, but between the show’s writers and its actors. And some of that language might be the most illuminating of all.” So sure, you might only enjoy this piece if you watched the show. But even if you didn’t, the fact that you’re reading this shows you care about good writing—and good writing about good writing is some of the best good writing of all. —PR
Imogen West-Knights | The Guardian | May 25, 2023 | 5,775 words
I grew up watching people break world records. Not because I am from a family whose skillset includes spinning basketballs on toothbrushes or sticking spoons to their chest (actual records), but because I watched a show called Record Breakers. It was all very wholesome: Enthusiastic presenters oversaw members of the public trying to earn a place in the book of Guinness World Records. The upbeat theme song confidently declared that Dedication is all you need. Perhaps it is. In this piece, Imogen West-Knights writes that her failure to beat the record for the longest time standing on one leg blindfolded “was not because I was incapable of doing it. It was because I didn’t want it enough.” She meets plenty of people who do want it (and want it a lot), her delightful account peppered with humans who have caught the most marshmallows fired from a homemade catapult in one minute or jumped the most consecutive cars on a pogo stick. But in recent years, things at Guinness World Records have become a little less joyful and a little more corporate. West-Knights explains how GWR Consultancy now helps brands to find a way to break a record—for a fee. (Perhaps unsurprising in the TikTok age.) But even if record-breaking is not what it once was, it is lovely to know that diehard record-breakers are still out there on their pogo sticks “celebrating achievement in the abstract.” —CW
Here’s the piece our readers loved most this week:
David Kushner | Insider | May 21, 2023 | 4,634 words
A young French man named Louis came home one day in 2018 and saw a small red plastic brick sitting in his driveway. Right away, he knew something was wrong. Dive into the world of AFOLs—Adult Fans of Lego—and a crime that pitted two childhood friends against one another. —SD