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Ben leads the Editorial team at WordPress.com / Automattic, and contributes to Longreads, Discover, and other projects.

What Does a Post-Apocalyptic Gated Community Look Like?

bunkers south dakota
Chris Huber / Rapid City Journal via AP

In trying times, many of us gravitate to escapist cultural consumption — think Seth Rogen watching Cats for the first time while very, very high. You’d assume that a story about mid-market post-apocalyptic bunkers in South Dakota would be the last thing to fit that bill, yet I somehow found Mark O’Connell’s excerpt on that very topic, in The Guardian, oddly soothing.

The piece takes great pleasure in describing the obvious folly of the enterprise — how could it not? (I kept wondering: all these communities would depend on contracted armed forces for protection, but what would stop these mercenaries from killing their wealthy overlords and taking over all the fancy dry foods in their underground pantries?) But it also shows how this absurd concept is, in fact, a very natural next step for a society that largely refuses to act as one.

The place was, I read on the company’s website, “strategically and centrally located in one of the safest areas of North America”, at an altitude of about 1,200 metres and 100 miles from the nearest known military nuclear targets. “Vivos security team can spot anyone approaching the property from three miles away. Massive. Safe. Secure. Isolated. Private. Defensible. Off-Grid. Centrally located.” It was not intuitively clear to me how a place could be both isolated and centrally located, but, to be fair, if pretty much the entire rest of the world had perished, any settlement of living humans would have legitimate grounds to proclaim itself centrally located.

Vivos was offering more than just the provision of ready-made bunkers and turnkey apocalypse solutions. It was offering a vision of a post-state future. When you bought into such a scheme, you tapped into a fever dream from the depths of the libertarian lizard-brain: a group of well-off and ideologically like-minded individuals sharing an autonomous space, heavily fortified against outsiders — the poor, the hungry, the desperate, the unprepared — and awaiting its moment to rebuild civilisation from the ground up. What was being offered, as such, was a state stripped down to its bare rightwing essentials: a militarised security apparatus, engaged through contractual arrangement, for the protection of private wealth.

End-time real estate was an increasingly competitive racket. On the website of one major purveyor of luxury apocalypse solutions, Trident Lakes, I read that in the event of a nuclear, chemical or biological emergency, the properties would be sealed by automatic airlocks and blast doors, and that each would be connected via a network of tunnels to an underground community centre featuring dry food storage, DNA vaults, fully equipped exercise rooms and meeting areas. The promotional blurb also promised such features as a retail district, an equestrian centre and polo field, an 18-hole golf course and a driving range.

This was a new entry into the canon of apocalyptic scenarios: bankers and hedge-fund managers, tanned and relaxed, taking the collapse of civilisation as an opportunity to spend some time on the links, while a heavily armed private police force roamed the perimeter in search of intruders. All of this was a logical extension of the gated community. It was a logical extension of capitalism itself.

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When Readers Support Longreads, We Can Nurture Strong Relationships with Writers

longreads member drive

As an editor, the biggest compliment a writer can pay me is to send a second pitch my way. Building a strong relationship with authors — the kind that lasts for years and transcends the vagaries of daily traffic and Twitter chatter — is my favorite thing about being a Longreads editor. Here’s the thing: none of it is possible without readers’ support. That’s why we’re aiming to raise $50,000 during our Winter Member Drive this year.

When you, our readers, become members, you not only show us your trust in our editorial choices; you also make it possible for us to nurture some incredible writers. Every contribution you make — especially when it’s a recurring (monthly or annual) one — goes directly to our story fund and gives us the space to think big, to commit to long-term projects, and to sustain some of our audience’s favorite reads.

Over the last few years, the Longreads team has doubled down on publishing longform series on topics ranging from history to music. There’s something very special that happens when a writer gets to return to the same topic and explore it, over the course of months and years, from new angles. Their connection to the subject matter deepens. Their authority becomes both more apparent and, at the same time, more laid back. Their voice develops and modulates as loyal readers keep coming back.

In Anne Thériault’s Queens of Infamy — going strong for two years now — this long-term commitment has led to a passionate following that eagerly awaits each new, darkly funny account of women rulers from centuries past. Tom Maxwell’s Shelved series, with 14 essays under its belt, has been unearthing the stories of unpublished albums by some of the most famous musicians on the planet. From perfume to mirrors, Katy Kelleher has been diving deep into the ugly history of beautiful things, a gorgeously written exploration of material culture.

There are more I could mention — from Rebecca Schuman’s scathing reevaluation of ’90s pop artifacts to Soraya Roberts’ brilliant weekly columns on the intersection of politics and culture (seriously, read them!). But the point I’m trying to make is simple: we need your support to make these relationships sustainable. Our readers’ commitment to Longreads is what makes it possible for Longreads to commit to writers and their work over time.

Thank you for contributing during our Winter Member Drive — every dollar helps, and every recurring contribution helps even more. If you’re ready to become a member (or re-up your previous contribution), you know what to do — just click below.

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The Decline and Not-Quite-Instagrammable Fall of a Design Startup

Photo by designmilk (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Every time I think I couldn’t possibly read another startup post-mortem story, a new one lands, and I find myself — once again — drawn in. This genre plays on the seductive power of schadenfreude and voyeurism, but at its best, it also explores something broader and more nefarious about this moment, and not just in the tech industry. Courtney Rubin, in The Marker, does just that when she chronicles Homepolish’s collapse. There’s the usual mix of a polarizing founder (in this case, Noa Santos), hubris, and greed disguised as a desire to “democratize design.” But there’s also a deeper story about exploitation, class, and the gap between (heavily filtered) appearances and the ugly reality on the ground.

On June 21, Santos — sitting alone under a crystal-accented chandelier in the office — put three-quarters of the company on what was supposed to be temporary unpaid leave, maybe two weeks, he said, according to former employees who were there at the time. (The other quarter of the company stayed on for minimum wage.) “If you can handle a paycheck or two, I do remain optimistic,” an ex-employee said her manager told her, emphasizing the considerable chunk of time the company had employed her.

By July 22, as most employees had gone a full month without pay, Santos’ husband Instagrammed a photo of a six-bedroom, $1.6 million home the couple had just bought in East Hampton, complete with two ponds, a tennis court, and a Jacuzzi.

Designers were still in the dark about what was happening, and there were still near-daily posts on Homepolish’s Instagram. Referrals had slowed, but some designers reasoned it was summer and people were away. It took the designers a while to realize they, too, weren’t being paid, because things had always been a little haphazard in the finance department.

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The Nontrivial Pursuit of Quiz Glory

Photo by Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images

Some of my earliest memories of my late grandfather involve him turning from one grandchild to the next, asking each one a random (but not too challenging) general-knowledge question: “What’s the capital of Belgium?” “Who invented the telephone?” When we answered correctly, he would beam. “Ten points!”

Just like at Hogwarts (“A gazillion points to Gryffindor!”), nobody tallied these points. They were a vehicle for instant gratification, and for the deeper pleasure I’ve come to associate with being right. (It’s a feeling one can mitigate and occasionally suppress, but never — in my experience, anyway — quite outgrow.)

Something similar — though on a far more elaborate scale — is at work in Samanth Subramanian’s Guardian piece on the global subculture of quizzing. Part personal narrative (Subramanian has been a “quiz obsessive” since childhood) and part cultural history, it tries to explain why, at an age where endless amounts of information are a Google search away, millions are avid participants in quiz events, from informal pub nights to competitive tournaments.

The answer is complex, and Subramanian recognizes the irony in that. But one of the most compelling arguments he makes is that quizzes aren’t about a linear process from ignorance or uncertainty to truth. Instead, they inspire circuitous acts of creativity. Faced with a question, we must summon not just all the facts we’ve memorized, but all the anecdotes, emotions, and experiences that surround those details.

Admitting to such a fevered love isn’t a good look, I realise. The very premise of quizzing can appear to be a fetishising of book learning: of facts memorised for their own sake, instead of being learned from any true engagement with life. At best, this can feel charmingly antique in the 21st century, when the internet and its infinite electronic lobes do our remembering for us. At worst, quizzers are thought to suck up facts only to win meaningless contests that cater to their intellectual vanities; they are typecast as people who have such a transactional relationship with knowledge that they really can be said to know very little at all.

But at its finest, quizzing today is never about shallow recall; it’s an exercise in nimble thinking, and possibly the only forum where the entirety of your life – everything you’ve ever seen, read, tasted, heard, heard of, or lived through – can be marshalled as pure knowledge. A friend of mine, an English professor in a college in Bangalore, once called quizzing an act of bricolage – a term that the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss used to describe how even a small number of ideas may be mixed and combined to create something novel and unforeseen. The process thrives on freshness and play, and it holds a sense of limitless possibility – of producing many, many things we never knew out of the few things we do know.

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“Labor-Saving” Kitchen Gadgets End Up Creating More Work for Women

Copper and wooden pots and kitchen utensils
DEA / G. P. CAVALLERO (Getty Images)

Conventional wisdom assumes that technological advances make our lives more comfortable by automating and speeding up previously manual, time-intensive tasks. As Bee Wilson shows in an essay at Bustle (an excerpt from Women on Food), that’s rarely the case — at least when it comes to home cooking. Wilson’s history of women’s labor in the kitchen celebrates the few inventions — the Instant Pot, the gas oven — that have indeed revolutionized the way domestic cooks prepare food. But they’re outliers in a long parade of gadgets and appliances that increased, rather than reduced, the labor necessary for putting together a meal.

Due to its coinciding with a radical adjustment in the division of labor between the sexes, the arrival of appliances did not necessarily make life any easier for women. This case was made, with scholarship and wit, by Ruth Schwartz Cowan in her groundbreaking 1983 book More Work for Mother. From around 1860 to 1960, the American household steadily shed its colonial character and became industrialized. That century saw countless new contraptions hit the market, from cheese graters to toaster ovens; electric waffle presses to blenders. But, at the same time, the whole workflow of household cooking changed, and not to the benefit of women. Cowan observed that in the preindustrial rural kitchens of the United States, men and women were forced to collaborate to prepare food. The housewife might stew a simple meal of meat and grains in a kettle, but her husband would have grown the grains, butchered the meat, and constructed the fireplace. He grew corn; she baked cornbread. Children would also have helped out their parents by carrying pails of water. By contrast, the advent of industrially milled flour and cast-iron stoves and running water left women alone in the kitchen, solely responsible for making dinner.

Another problem with the labor-saving devices aimed at women is that they have always come along at the same time as a rise in culinary expectations, so the net result was a cook who was more exhausted than ever. From 1850 onward, eggbeaters became a veritable obsession in the American household. From 1856 to 1920 there were an astonishing 692 separate patents issued for this tool, the most famous of which was the Dover with its two revolving beaters. When it came to getting fluffy egg whites, not one of these elaborate designs was an upgrade from the French balloon whisk (an unimprovable piece of engineering) or even on the old-fashioned birch twig whisk, which can do a surprisingly effective job if you don’t mind the occasional fragment of bark in your meringue. It would not be until the electric mixers of the twentieth century that beating eggs became radically easier. The early patent eggbeaters, by contrast, brought only the illusion of ease, coupled with a sense that producing perfectly beaten eggs was something that women ought to do, and a woman in possession of a Dover felt obliged to make fancy cakes with it. The popularity of these whirligigs also corresponded to a new vogue for angel food cakes, which necessitated huge volumes of eggs to be beaten, the whites and the yolks separately. So far from halving a woman’s work, this latest, greatest mechanism could actually multiply it.

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We’re All Tourists Now, So Let’s Stop with the Endless, Tedious Quests for Authenticity

From Dubrovnik to Tulum, 21st-century tourists cycle through destinations with brutal speed, descending en masse on one supposedly-undiscovered city or beach town after another. At Vox, Kyle Chayka reflects on the perils of overtourism while traveling around Iceland, where he goes on a Game of Thrones bus tour, takes a dip in the entirely human-made Blue Lagoon, and watches the northern lights… in an IMAX theater. Rather than inspire nostalgia for a time when authentic travel experiences were still possible (the 16th century, maybe?), the trip leads him to acceptance. We can never live like locals; our “wanderlust” is shaped almost entirely by algorithms and market forces; and maybe that’s just fine — or at least better than playing a never-ending game of authenticity one-upmanship.

In the face of overtourism, I want to make an argument for the inauthentic. Not just the spots flooded with tourists but the simulations and the fictions, the ways that the world of tourism supersedes reality and becomes its own space. It is made up of the digital northern lights on an 8K movie screen, the manmade turquoise geothermal baths, and the computer renderings of high-budget television shows overlaid on the earth. I don’t regret any of these activities; in fact, the less authentic an experience was supposed to be in Iceland, the more fun I had and the more aware I was of the consequences of 21st-century travel.

This is not to discount the charm of hiking an empty mountain or the very real damage that tourists cause, disrupting lives and often intensifying local inequality. But maybe by reclaiming these experiences, or destigmatizing them, we can also begin regaining our agency over the rampant commodification of places and people. We can travel to see what exists instead of wishing for some mythical untouched state, the dream of a place prepared perfectly for visitors and yet empty of them. Instead of trying to “live like a local,” as Airbnb commands, we can just be tourists. When a destination is deemed dead might be the best time to go there, as the most accurate reflection of our impure world.

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When Arnold Schwarzenegger Was the Newest Member of the Gym

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

At Deadspin, David Davis‘s sprawling oral history of the original Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach is gritty, fun, and brimming with ’70s sleaze and addictive banter. Beyond piecing together the early years of the legendary gym, the story zooms out to show the broader shifts that took bodybuilding from a small Southern California subculture to a multibillion-dollar industry — and then zooms all the way in to focus on the quirks of its ensemble cast. This group of pioneer bodybuilders happens to include Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course: fresh off the proverbial boat, and making his first, heavy-accented moves in the state of which, decades later, he would become the governor.

[Chet] Yorton: I beat this young kid in the [NABBA] Mr. Universe contest in ‘66. He was very subdued. He needed an interpreter because he spoke very little English. He followed me around like a puppy dog backstage. He wanted to know what to do for his calves, what to do for this and that. He came in second to me, but at 20 years old you could tell he was unbelievable. When I came back to Gold’s I told everybody, “You’re not going to believe this guy Arnold Schwarzenegger.” I knew then.

[Frank] Zane: I won Mr. America in September of ‘68. A week later was [IFBB] Mr. Universe in Miami. Arnold was there. He’d just come over to the States. He was white, smooth, didn’t pose good, had missing body parts, couldn’t speak any English. I beat him, and he took it real hard. But Joe Weider immediately fell in love with Arnold and whisked him off to California, where he was moving his business empire [from New Jersey]. Arnold got a Volkswagen, paid apartment, free supplements, couple hundred bucks a week. From Joe Weider, that was pretty amazing.

[John] Balik: Without question, Joe Weider was the most important person in establishing Arnold here. Arnold wouldn’t be here without Joe Weider making the first step and supporting him.

Joe Weider first told Arnold to go to Vince’s because they were doing business together. I was standing next to Vince at the desk when Arnold walked in for the first time. He was wearing flip-flops, white shorts, and a string T-shirt. Arnold was probably the biggest he’d ever been; he weighed maybe 255 pounds. He said in very broken English, “I’m Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’m Mr. Universe.” Vince took the cigar out of his mouth and said, “You just look like a fat fuck to me.”

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Breast Implants, Beyond Real and Fake

Image via Getty

Nearly seven years ago, Nell Boeschenstein decided to undergo a prophylactic mastectomy after learning that a genetic mutation running in her family significantly increased her odds of getting breast and ovarian cancer. Her recent Granta essay is a (bracing) personal and medical history of the years since her surgery. It’s also a cultural history of breasts in their various ontological states — real and symbolic, natural, fake, and enhanced — and highlights the difficulty of talking about bodies (even, if not especially, one’s own) without getting entangled in layers of mediation through language, visual representation, and social norms. You start with skin, flesh, and blood and end with celebrity profiles, podcasts, and long lists of synonyms and euphemisms.

The essay devotes considerable space to unpacking the cultural ambivalence surrounding breast implants, which double as markers of both tackiness and empowerment, which makes the decision whether to get them at all especially fraught:

You also talk about not getting them at all. Years ago, whenever the vague meditation of what-would-you-do-if passed through your head en route to never-me, you liked to imagine yourself as a woman who would reject the idea of implants and instead proudly claim, like a warrior princess, some scars and a misshapen torso. Reality bites. Since never-me has become yes-you, you’ve grown hyper-aware of the clickbait that appears periodically in your Twitter feed, lauding brave breast cancer soldiers and promising a gallery of artistic photographs featuring survivors who’ve decided against implants in favor of staring out at the world and daring it to tell them they’re not beautiful.

In these photographs, sometimes their chests are unadorned. Sometimes they are decorated in elaborate tattoos of briar rose patches or rising phoenixes or blooming cherry trees. Inevitably, the writers of these articles fawn over the aesthetic qualities of this body art and the moral courage and rejection of a patriarchal culture such a choice implies. Maybe you’re reading too much into it, but it seems that, while all women who’ve had their biological goodyears taken off are placed on some sort of pedestal, those who’ve opted out of implants are — mirror, mirror — the most ballsy, the most badass, the most empowered of them all.

Are you supposed to be this kind of woman? You honestly do not know. But if you are, you aren’t. Messages have been mixed. Messages are mixed.

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Long Live the Oddly Charming Poetry of the Mail-Order Catalog

Image by Mike Mozart (CC BY 2.0)

In this age of near-universal despair, could America’s longest-running mail-order retailer be the sleeper hero we didn’t even know was still among us? At Chicago Magazine, Nick Greene makes a compelling case that Hammacher Schlemmer, founded in 1881, might just be the goofy, retro anti-Amazon we need.

The catalog’s most obvious hook might be the ridiculous gizmos and novelty items — motorized unicycle, anyone? — that appear on its cover. But what I found especially endearing is the level of care the catalog’s makers invest in the product descriptions.

Beyond being older, today’s prototypical Hammacher Schlemmer customer is also wealthy and educated. “They would definitely be considered top 10 percent in household income, a lot of postgrads,” Farrell says. “That’s why we feel the copy is important.” Where else can one find a backpack described as “Brobdingnagian” or a walking stick crafted from “sustainably coppiced blackthorn (Primus spinosa)”?

The text is matter-of-fact, with odd literary flourishes, and the titles are concise, yet deceptively clever. “I could go on for hours talking about titles,” says John Gagliardi, who, as Hammacher Schlemmer’s senior creative manager, oversees the catalog’s unmistakable copy. “We agonize over titles.” The company employs two full-time copywriters and a stable of contributors to write the extensive product descriptions.

The NASA Strength Sun Hat harnesses “the same technology used in space suits.” That galactic selling point doesn’t overshadow the product’s earthly benefits, like the “wide brim” and a “radiant barrier” that “imparts a UPF 50+ rating to the hat.” If a product is unisex (the sun hat is), then that will always be noted, as will whether or not it requires batteries (it does not). At 153 words, the hat’s description is about the average length for Hammacher Schlemmer. A standard catalog is 88 pages long, give or take, meaning that, at four products per page, there are roughly 53,856 words in every issue. That’s more verbose than The Great Gatsby (47,094 words).

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Queer Eye Is an Upbeat Documentary of a Failing Social Order

Photo By Sthanlee B. Mirador/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)

When the Queer Eye reboot landed on Netflix a few months ago, my initial skepticism soon got washed away by the overwhelming doses of kindness and empathy the new cast showed everyone they encountered. A few episodes in, though, new questions started percolating in my head: Shouldn’t this show be called “Bourgeois Eye” rather than “Queer Eye?” Where are these people’s support systems — why do these five men need to help strangers complete basic, everyday domestic tasks? How can Jonathan and Antoni belong anywhere on the same spectrum of professional competence and emotional intelligence? Who could’ve been callous enough to stage not one, but several awful scenes involving Karamo, the sole black cast member, and local police?

At The Baffler, Laurie Penny lends her sharp critical eye to a show in real need of some serious unpacking. She pulls off a very Fab Five-like feat: blanketing her subject in affection while exposing (shredding, really) both its obvious and less-obvious shortcomings. At the core of her essay is a crucial point: that the show isn’t really about queerness; it’s about documenting (mostly white, mostly straight) “heroes” who demand, but can’t quite acquire, the emotional and other labor they’d expected to get for free.

The one thing the Fab Five aren’t allowed to do is get angry. That appears to be the trade-off for permission to enter the homes and lives of their test subjects. The show is relentlessly, exhaustively upbeat.

There’s a queasy equivocation, the constant implication that both sides need to compromise and unclench their grip on their prejudices in order to reach that magical place of acceptance. Issues of race, gender, and poverty are painfully smoothed over to force the material into a neat forty-five-minute box tied off with an uplifting message and a tasteful bow. Most grueling of all is episode five of season one, which stars a Christian father of six who works two low-waged jobs, usually sleeps two and a half hours a night and, unsurprisingly, doesn’t have a lot of time left over for personal grooming. He tells the Fab Five that he considers the state of his too-small house evidence of “not being enough” for his wife and children. It should be apparent even to the most unblinking neoliberal believer in the power of positive self-talk that the deficiency is not in this man’s soul, nor his self-confidence, but in his salary. His deficiencies have a dollar value, and culture has convinced him that that is his fault.

Money is the silent sixth member of the rescue squad. The services that the Fab Five are offering are worth more than most of these men could possibly afford—there are thousands of dollars of new clothes and furniture on offer here, and frankly, that’s no shabby way to advertise tolerance.

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