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The staff of Longreads.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Lizzie Presser, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, S. Margot Finn, Darcy Frey, and Logan Hill.

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A Minor Figure

Ada Overton Walker, 1912. (Library of Congress)

Saidiya Hartman | An excerpt adapted from Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval | W. W. Norton & Co. | 25 minutes (6,922 words)

The small naked figure reclines on the arabesque sofa. Looking at the photograph, it is easy to mistake her for some other Negress, lump her with all the delinquent girls working Lombard Street and Middle Alley, lose sight of her among the surplus colored women in the city, condemn and pity the child whore. Everyone has a different story to share. Fragments of her life are woven with the stories of girls resembling her and girls nothing like her, stories held together by longing, betrayal, lies, and disappointment. The newspaper article confuses her with another girl, gets her name wrong. Photographs of the tenement where she lives regularly appear in the police briefs and the charity reports, but you can barely see her, peering out of the third-floor window. The caption makes no mention of her, noting only the moral hazard of the one-room kitchenette, the foul condition of the toilets, and the noise of the airshaft. The photograph taken of her in the attic studio is the one that is most familiar; it is how the world still remembers her. Had her name been scribbled on the back of the albumen print, there would be at least one fact I could convey with a measure of certainty, one detail that I would not have to guess, one less obstacle in retracing the girl’s path through the streets of the city. Had the photographer or one of the young men assisting him in the studio recorded her name, I might have been able to find her in the 1900 census, or discover if she ever resided at the Shelter for Colored Orphans, or danced on the stage of the Lafayette Theatre, or if she ended up at the Magdalene House when there was nowhere else to go.

Her friends refused to tell the authorities anything; but even they didn’t know how she arrived at the house on the outskirts of the Seventh Ward, or what happened in the studio that afternoon. The Irish housekeeper thought she was the black cook, Old Margaret’s, niece, and, neglecting her work as they were wont to do had wandered from the kitchen to the studio. Old Margaret, no kin to the girl, believed that Mr. Eakins had lured her to the attic with the promise of a few coins, but never said what she feared. The social worker later assigned to the girl’s case never saw the photograph. She blamed the girl’s mother and the slum for all the terrible things that happened and filled in the blanks on the personal history form, never listening for any other answer. Age of first sexual offense was the only question without certain reply.

From these bits and pieces, it has been difficult to know where to begin or even what to call her. The fiction of a proper name would evade the dilemma, not resolve it. It would only postpone the question: Who is she? I suppose I could call her Mattie or Kit or Ethel or Mabel. Any of these names would do and would be the kind of name common to a young colored woman at the beginning of the twentieth century. There are other names reserved for the dark: Sugar Plum, Peaches, Pretty Baby, and Little Bit — names imposed on girls like her that hint at the pleasures afforded by intimate acts performed in rented rooms and dimly lit hallways. And there are the aliases too, the identities slipped on and discarded — a Mrs. quickly affixed to a lover’s name, or one borrowed from a favorite actress to invent a new life, or the protective cover offered by the surname of a maternal grandmother’s dead cousin — all to elude the law, keep your name out of the police register, hold the past at a safe distance, forget what grown men did to girls behind closed doors. The names and the stories rush together. The singular life of this particular girl becomes interwoven with those of other young women who crossed her path, shared her circumstances, danced with her in the chorus, stayed in the room next door in a Harlem tenement, spent sixty days together at the workhouse, and made an errant path through the city. Read more…

American Green

Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Ted Steinberg | American Green | W. W. Norton & Company | March 2006 | 43 minutes (7,070 words)


Although there are plenty of irrational aspects to life in modern America, few rival the odd fixation on lawns. Fertilizing, mowing, watering — these are all-American activities that, on their face, seem reasonable enough. But to spend hundreds of hours mowing your way to a designer lawn is to flirt, most would agree, with a bizarre form of fanaticism. Likewise, planting a species of grass that will make your property look like a putting green seems a bit excessive — yet not nearly as self-indulgent as the Hamptons resident who put in a nine-hole course with three lakes, despite being a member of an exclusive golf club located across the street. And what should we make of the Houston furniture salesman who, upon learning that the city was planning to ban morning mowing — to fight a smog problem comparable to Los Angeles’s — vowed to show up, bright and early, armed and ready to cut.“I’ll pack a sidearm,” he said. “What are they going to do, have the lawn police come and arrest me?”

Surprisingly, the lawn is one of America’s leading “crops,” amounting to at least twice the acreage planted in cotton. In 2007, it was estimated that there were roughly twenty-five to forty million acres of turf in the United States. Put all that grass together in your mind and you have an area, at a minimum, about the size of the state of Kentucky, though perhaps as large as Florida. Included in this total were fifty-eight million home lawns plus over sixteen thousand golf-course facilities (with one or more courses each) and roughly seven hundred thousand athletic fields. Numbers like these add up to a major cultural preoccupation.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Gabriel Thompson, Tim Murphy, Deborah Netburn, Tove Danovich, and Sirin Kale.

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Putin’s Rasputin

St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square; Moscow, Russia. (Rickson Liebano/Getty)

Amos Barshad | An excerpt adapted from No One Man Should Have All That Power: How Rasputins Manipulate the World | Harry N. Abrams | 17 minutes (4,490 words)


In the lobby of a heavy-stone building in central Moscow, I’m greeted by a friendly young woman in a pantsuit who, she explains, is working “in the field of geopolitics.” She takes me to the security desk, where my passport is carefully, minutely inspected before I’m granted access. As we head upstairs the woman slowly whispers a joke: “This is what will save us from the terrorists.”

We walk down a long, high hallway that looks or bare or unfinished or forgotten, like maybe someone was planning on shutting down this wing of the office but never got around to it. There are linoleum floors, cracking and peeling, and bits of mismatched tile in the style of sixties Americana. Rank-and-file office clerks shuffle through, and no one pays attention to a faint buzzing emanating from somewhere near.

We stop in front of a heavy wooden door. Inside is Aleksandr Dugin.

The man is an ideologue with a convoluted, bizarre, unsettling worldview. He believes the world is divided into two spheres of influence — sea powers, which he calls Eternal Carthage, and land powers, which he calls Eternal Rome. He believes it has always been so. Today, those spheres are represented by America, the Carthage, and Russia, the Rome. He believes that Carthage and Rome are locked in a forever war that will only end with the destruction of one or the other. Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

250 year old stone putti in the public garden of the palace in Wuerzburg, Germany via Getty Images

This week, we’re sharing stories from Ian Frisch, Niela Orr, Alison Fensterstock, Jill Lepore, and Austin Carr.

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Editor’s Roundtable: All Things Being Unequal (Podcast)

The demonstration tunnel approximately 420 meters underground at Onkalo, a spent nuclear fuel repository in Finland. (Antti Yrjonen/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

On our June 28, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Audience Editor Catherine Cusick, Essays Editor Sari Botton, and Culture Columnist Soraya Roberts share what they’ve been reading and nominate stories for the Weekly Top 5 Longreads.

This week, the editors discuss stories in The Cut, Columbia Review of Journalism, The New York Times, Longreads, and Pacific Standard.

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0:46 Hideous Men (E. Jean Carroll, June 21, 2019, The Cut)

Times Public Editor: Ignoring a scoop that’s not your own. (Gabriel Snyder, June 24, 2019, Columbia Journalism Review

Our Top Editor Revisits How We Handled E. Jean Carroll’s Allegations Against Trump. (Lara Takenaga, June 24, 2019, The New York Times

“You’ve seen it through a bunch of women who come forward, where people almost police the way they come forward, and how they should be reflecting on their own experience.” Soraya Roberts

The team discusses The Cut’s excerpt of E. Jean Carroll’s new memoir What Do We Need Men For? and the way the media handled coverage of this story. The excerpt revealed some of the instances of sexual assault Carroll experienced in her life, including an allegation that Donald Trump raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room.

The editors discuss why the New York Times initially buried the story, and how not breaking the story appears to have impacted its coverage. They also question whether where a story is published — in this case, a women’s website — impacts how seriously that story is taken. 

11:55 If I Made $4 a Word, This Article Would be Worth $10,000. (Soraya Roberts, June 2019, Longreads)

“All of us are part of an inequitable system. She just happens to be benefiting from it.” – Soraya Roberts

The team discusses issues of compensation, access, and privilege in journalism. Longreads culture columnist Soraya Roberts shares her reaction to systemic inequality in an industry where most seasoned, talented writers are lucky to get $0.50 per word — a small fraction of what a select few of their peers are making. The team questions why Roberts’ attack on a broken system was misinterpreted as an attack on an individual, and weighs the relative benefits of not rocking a media boat that is clearly sinking. 

34:55 The Hiding Place: Inside The World’s First Long-term Storage Facility for Highly Radioactive Nuclear Waste.  (Robert MacFarlane, June 24, 2019, Pacific Standard)

“How can we be good ancestors?” – Catherine Cusick 

In Pacific Standard, Robert MacFarlane visits a Finnish nuclear waste site and explores the difficulty of communicating its danger to future generations in today’s languages or symbology. 

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Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

E. Jean Carroll. (Eva Deitch for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from E. Jean Carroll, Stephanie Clifford, Robert Macfarlane, Kathryn Miles, and Graphic Staff with Spencer Cliche.

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First Contact

Illustration by Lucius Wisniewski

Sarah Watts | Longreads | June 2019 | 10 minutes (2,998 words)

Every Friday in the summer of 1997, my mom tended bar to pay for her masters degree and my dad took us to the movies. My twin brother Adam and I were 9 and our little brother, Jake, was 7. Because younger kids got in free, my dad would tell the ticket taker we were all under 6, and he waved us in every time without scrutiny.

We went to the drive-in not far from our house nothing more than an enormous screen looming over a gravel parking lot, littered with weeds and broken bottles. Under the screen, kids turned cartwheels, shrieking and darting out in front of the cars that crawled past. Some parents would park backward and open up their trunks, lining the bottom with blankets and pillows for the kids to lounge in; others would crack open beers from the comfort of fold-out chairs. Not us we parked facing the screen, windows up, air-conditioning running.
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Editor’s Roundtable: Just Put Some Eyes On There (Podcast)

Cynthia Breazeal, roboticist and social robotics pioneer, is pictured with Jibo, a personal assistant robot. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On our June 14, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Audience Editor Catherine Cusick, Contributing Editor Aaron Gilbreath, and Books Editor Dana Snitzky share what they’ve been reading and nominate stories for the Weekly Top 5 Longreads.

This week, the editors discuss stories in Grub Street, The New Yorker, Gay Magazine, and The Verge.

Subscribe and listen now everywhere you get your podcasts.

0:20 How a Cash-Strapped Start-up Became the Internet’s Food-Nerd Utopia. (Chris Crowley, June 18, 2019, Grub Street

“The ultimate distillation of a conversation going on with all the slow bits cut out and all the best parts included.” – Aaron Gilbreath

In 2006, Ed Levine launched Serious Eats, which quickly became a go-to place on the internet for the food obsessed. To coincide with Levine’s memoir, Grub Street created a “meta-food experience” by speaking with writers involved in the early days of the website. The Longreads team discusses how the oral history format seems to get people to lower their filter and allow personalities to come to the forefront. They also talk about the ambitious lengths people went to to get a story during this period of the blogging internet, and how that ambition often wasn’t reflected in the low rates and long hours they worked. 

8:20 The Strange Story of a Secret Literary Fellowship. (Daniel A. Gross, June 16, 2019, The New Yorker)

The Optics of Opportunity. (Hafizah Geter, June 19, 2019, Gay Magazine)

“Racism isn’t a revelation, it’s ever-present and we’re always dealing with it.” – Dana Snitzky
“And it’s not a surprising reveal at the end of a story.” – Catherine Cusick

The team discusses the New Yorker’s story about a secret literary fellowship funded by Barnes & Nobel owner Leonard Riggio’s family foundation and a rebuttal companion piece to the story from Gay Magazine.

Geter is a main character in Gross’s piece and both writers were participants in the fellowship but, as our editors discuss, the structure and framing of the pieces differ greatly. In Gay Magazine, Geter asks who gets to tell a story and critiques the New Yorker’s editorial choice to frame Gross’ piece as a story about wealth. The editors question the down-the-rabbit-hole structure, which posits racism as a mystery’s big revelation, rather than, as Geter shows, the glaring center of the story, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. The team talks about how opportunity and predation are intertwined, and the difference between people who feed hope and those who feed on it.

24:08 They Welcomed a Robot Into Their Family, Now They’re Mourning Its Death.  (Ashley Carman, June 19, 2019, The Verge)

“I didn’t expect my friendly home robot to die.” – Catherine Cusick

Jibo was one of the first social robots engineered to normalize the notion of “a robot in every home,” to appeal to children, and to become part of the family. Jibo’s eyes, facial recognition responsiveness, and personalized greetings fostered a bond with owners, who developed pet-like affection for the dancing digital personality. Now, the company that makes Jibo has been bought out, and Jibo owners have been put on notice. His servers are shutting down “soon,” but no one knows exactly when.

The editors talk about how to say goodbye to a robot you didn’t expect to “die,” the challenge of trusting the reliability of something that corporations can unplug at will, and how consumer relationships to home assistants are complicated by their intentional emotional appeal.

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Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.