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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Peter Eisler, Linda So, Jason Szep, Grant Smith, Ned Parker, Jaed Coffin, Sarah Gilman, Katy Kelleher, and Irris Makler.

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1. Dying Inside

Peter Eisler, Linda So, Jason Szep, Grant Smith, Ned Parker | Reuters | October 16, 2020 | 19 minutes (4,936 words)

Nearly 5,000 inmates have died in U.S. jails without getting their day in court. Reuters investigates the fatalities in America’s biggest jails.

2. The COVID Cruise Ship and the Maine Fishing Town

Jaed Coffin | Down East | October 1, 2020 | 15 minutes (3,964 words)

“Eastport tried for years to lure mega cruise ships. Then, amid a global pandemic, it got one, along with a skeleton crew of coronavirus exiles.”

3. The Island That Humans Can’t Conquer

Sarah Gilman | Hakai Magazine | October 6, 2020 | 10 minutes (2,600 words)

“A faraway island in Alaska has had its share of visitors, but none can remain for long on its shores.”

4. Russet, the Color of Peasants, Fox Fur, and Penance

Katy Kelleher | The Paris Review | October 20, 2020 | 7 minutes (1,923 words)

“But russet means more than red-like, red-adjacent. It also means rustic, homely, rough. It also evokes mottled, textured, coarse. The word describes a quality of being that can affect people as well as vegetables.”

5. The Kindness of Strangers

Irris Makler | Griffith Review | July 26, 2020 | 9 minutes (2,278 words)

“Many women arrived here with only the clothes on their backs and the recipes inside their heads. Cooking again, having a kitchen in which to cook, was a sign of rebuilding; cooking the dishes they knew from home was a comfort and a pleasure, and a way to retain some European identity. You anchored your new family in the tastes of your old home.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Lauren Smiley, Reid Forgrave, Susan Casey, Michael Rosenberg, and Lucy Jones.

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1. The True Story of the Antifa Invasion of Forks, Washington

Lauren Smiley | Wired | October 8, 2020 | 36 minutes (9,000 words)

A false report on Twitter about violent leftist activists traveling by bus exploded into a call to arms. Then a bus, carrying a family and two dogs, rolled into a remote Northwestern town best known as the setting for the Twilight series. Chaos ensued.

2. Lives, on the Line

Reid Forgrave | Star Tribune | October 2, 2020 | 43 minutes (10,816 words)

Six lives changed forever, as COVID-19 swept across Minnesota.

3. How Iceman Wim Hof Uncovered the Secrets to Our Health

Susan Casey | Outside | October 12, 2020 | 19 minutes (4,900 words)

“In a world addicted to comfort, it isn’t easy to convince a vast audience that what they really need is to take teeth-chattering swims and ice baths—but Hof has managed to do this.”

4. USC’s Dying Linebackers

Michael Rosenberg | Sports Illustrated | October 7, 2020 | 24 minutes (6,000 words)

In 1989, USC had a depth chart of a dozen linebackers. Five have died, each before age 50. Football was inextricably tied to their mortality. These are their stories.

5. Pathways in the Urban Wild

Lucy Jones | Emergence Magazine | July 27, 2020 | 8 minutes (2,120 words)

“As Lucy Jones and her daughter encounter wildflowers in a housing development, Lucy considers the healing benefits of an attentive relationship with the living world and the complex barriers to that relationship within urban areas.”

Longreads Honored with 14 Notable Mentions in ‘Best American’ Series

Longreads is delighted to announce 14 notable mentions for 13 pieces across the spectrum of the 2020 Best American series, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Please see below for the full list of pieces included in each edition and those honored with notable mentions. Congratulations to all!

The Best American Essays

Included in the anthology:

Notable mention:

The Best American Science and Nature Writing

Included in the anthology:

Notable mention:

The Best American Travel Writing

Included in the anthology:

Notable mention:

The Best American Food Writing

Included in the anthology:

Notable mention:

The Best American Sports Writing

Notable mention:

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

NEWTOWN, CT - MARCH 31: The exterior of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, CT is pictured on March 31, 2019. The new school building was completed in 2016. (Photo by Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from John Woodrow Cox, Nathaniel Penn, Len Necefer, Aymann Ismail, and Michael Venutolo-Mantovani.

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1. Only One of Their Children Survived Sandy Hook. Now School Posed a New Threat: The Virus.

John Woodrow Cox | The Washington Post | October 7, 2020 | 19 minutes (4,762 words)

“After losing their 6-year-old daughter in a mass shooting, can Isaiah Marquez-Greene’s parents bear to let him return to high school during a pandemic?”

2. The Last Patrol

Nathaniel Penn | The California Sunday Magazine | September 27, 2020 | 78 minutes (19,500 words)

“In 2019, President Trump pardoned Army Lieutenant Clint Lorance, who was serving a 20-year sentence for ordering the murder of two Afghan civilians. To Lorance’s defenders, the act was long overdue. To members of his platoon, it was a gross miscarriage of justice.”

3. Water is Life

Len Necefer | Alpinist Magazine | October 5, 2020 | 17 minutes (4,391 words)

“As I climbed and skied over rapidly receding snowfields, the journeys felt akin to doing final rounds of visits with my elders who are sick and soon to walk on into the next world.”

4. The Store That Called the Cops on George Floyd

Aymann Ismail | Slate | October 6, 2020 | 23 minutes (5,862 words)

“A teenage clerk dialed 911. How should the brothers who own CUP Foods pay for what happened next?”

5. From Tragedy to Trailblazer

Michael Venutolo-Mantovani | The Bitter Southerner | August 25, 2020 | 12 minutes (3,152 words)

“After three of her dear friends were murdered in 2015 — a case that drew national attention and triggered calls for stronger hate crime legislation — Nida Allam took to politics.”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Stewart Rhodes, founder of the citizen militia group known as the Oath Keepers, center, speaks during a rally outside the White House in Washington, Sunday, June 25, 2017. Rhodes was one of many speakers at the "Rally Against Political Violence," that was to condemn the attack on Republican congressmen during their June 14 baseball practice in Virginia and the "depictions of gruesome displays of brutality against sitting U.S. national leaders." (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Mike Giglio, Omar Mouallem, Katherine Laidlaw, Dave Daley, and Tim Greiving.

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1. “Civil War Is Here, Right Now”

Mike Giglio | The Atlantic | October 1, 2020 | 27 minutes (6,950 words)

“A Pro-Trump militant group has recruited thousands of police, soldiers, and veterans. An Atlantic investigation reveals who they are and what they might do on Election Day.”

2. January 8, 2020

Omar Mouallem | Edify Magazine | September 28, 2020 | 15 minutes (3,835 words)

“The day that PS752 was shot down will forever be frozen in his memory.”

3. Heartbreaker

Katherine Laidlaw | Toronto Life | September 28, 2020 | 26 minutes (6,601 words)

“To women in search of love, Shaun Rootenberg seemed like a catch. What they didn’t know: he’d spent decades stealing from just about anyone who crossed his path. Lonely women on dating sites were only his latest prey.”

4. I Cry for the Mountains: A Legacy Lost

Dave Daley | The Chico Enterprise-Record | September 27, 2020 | 22 minutes (5,500 words)

A rancher’s account of a wildfire’s devastating impact on his family, his cattle, and the forests they have relied on for generations.

5. The Oral History of ‘Best in Show’

Tim Greiving | The Ringer | September 29, 2020 | 24 minutes (6,200 words)

“Looking back at the dog show–centric successor to the mockumentaries ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ and ‘Waiting for Guffman’ on its 20th anniversary.”

“The Final Five Percent” Wins 2020 Science in Society Journalism Award

Tim Requarth, author of "The Final Five Percent."

We’re delighted to announce that Tim Requarth‘s piece, “The Final Five Percent,” won the 2020 Science in Society Journalism Award in the Longform Narratives category. For Tim, who holds a PhD in neuroscience, “The Final Five Percent” is both personal and professional. It recounts how his brother has coped in the decade since a traumatic brain injury permanently altered his personality. Here’s what the National Science Writers Association and the judges had to say about Tim’s piece:

“In ‘The Final Five Percent,’ published by Longreads in October 2019, Tim Requarth chronicles the catastrophic motorcycle accident that befalls his brother and the debilitating changes to his brother’s personality that emerge as he recovers most of his brain function in the weeks after the accident. The essay interweaves an intimate portrayal of the complexities of his brother’s life both before and after the accident, and of their sibling relationship, with what’s known about neuroscience of recklessness. ‘The Final Five Percent gripped us from its first paragraphs,’ write the judges. ‘This piece tackles the serious health mysteries around brain injury and explores the human consequences of that science in a way that is clear, nuanced, and emotionally devastating.'”

Be sure to check out Tim’s work elsewhere:

This piece was edited by Michelle Weber, fact checked by Sam Schuyler and Jason Stavers, and copy edited by Jacob Gross.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Barton Gellman, Latria Graham, Teju Cole, Samuel Ashworth, and Shanna Baker.

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1. The Election That Could Break America

Barton Gellman | The Atlantic | September 23, 2020 | 38 minutes (9,621 words)

“If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop him?”

2. Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream

Latria Graham | Outside | September 21, 2020 | 22 minutes (5,512 words)

“Two years ago, Latria Graham wrote an essay about the challenges of being Black in the outdoors. Countless readers reached out to her, asking for advice on how to stay safe in places where nonwhite people aren’t always welcome. She didn’t write back, because she had no idea what to say. In the aftermath of a revolutionary spring and summer, she responds.”

3. In Dark Times, I Sought Out the Turmoil of Caravaggio’s Paintings

Teju Cole | The New York Times Magazine | September 23, 2020 | 34 minutes (8700 words)

“The work the artist made near the end of his life changed my understanding of both beauty and suffering.”

4. The Slow, Troubling Death of the Autopsy

Samuel Ashworth | Elemental | September 21, 2020 | 29 minutes (7,275 words)

Doctors make mistakes. The true cause of a person’s death is often complicated and unclear. “Why you should get an autopsy if it’s the last thing you do.”

5. Where Camels Take to the Sea

Shanna Baker | Hakai Magazine | September 22, 2020 | 32 minutes (6,900 words)

“In Gujarat, India, a special breed of camel is not constrained by land—but it cannot escape the many forces of change.”

The Powerful Decide

Scott BerkunHow Design Makes the World | September 2020 | 1,696 words (6 minutes)

 

We rarely think of it this way, but the leaders of organizations are designers too. Organizational designers. By choosing the strategy, the budget, the culture and who they hire, they have more impact on whether good work is possible than anyone. CEO Alfred Sloan, who made good design central to his strategy for cars at General Motors in the 1930s, would never have called himself a designer. But his choices redefined how we think of a good car, as well as what the words design and designer mean for the world. We’re often told it’s people with great ideas or passion that make good work happen, but there’s a hidden and formidable truth. What makes good or bad design happen anywhere depends on who has the most power.

An organization could hire Maya Lin, Zaha Hadid or Bjarke Ingels, three legendary architects, but if their client ignored all of their suggestions, their skills would be rendered useless. When we see great works we often give the most acclaim to the designer, but as Michael Wilford wrote, “Behind every distinctive building is an equally distinctive client.” Designers and architects are often the center of attention when a work is finished, but along the way the client has the power to reject their ideas. Sometimes designers are hired as design theater, so the powerful can say “we have talented designers,” using their fame and reputation to help sell the project, even if that designer is mostly ignored.

Often there’s more than one person in power, and it’s their capacity to collaborate that defines what’s possible. Take, for example, the town of Missoula, Montana. It’s a small city with one very unusual characteristic: it has a city grid plan, but the central grid is oriented 45 degrees from the rest of the town. This makes it much easier to get lost, defeating a primary advantage of grids. What was the urban planner thinking? The answer is that there wasn’t just one plan, there were two, each led by factions that couldn’t agree.

Hand-drawn map of Missoula, Montana, by Tim Kordik.

In the 1880s, two landowners, W.M. Bickford and W.J. Stephens, owned property near an old wagon road that ran diagonally through the area. They formulated their own plan to align with it, with all streets running in a grid parallel to the wagon road (which still exists today, shown with the dashed line below). They imagined an entire town called South Missoula, with this as the core.

Hand-drawn map of Missoula, Montana, by Tim Kordik.

The problem was that another landowner, Judge Knowles, owned land to the north. He didn’t like the plan that Bickford and Stephens proposed. He thought the angled roads were a mistake, since they ignored the original master section plan that much of the surrounding area was using. But he also didn’t like the idea of there being a new town called South Missoula. He was able to get the Missoula government to agree to annex his property, and installed a true rectilinear grid plan.

Hand-drawn map of Missoula, Montana, by Tim Kordik.

At the time most of the area was undeveloped, so the official plan didn’t mean that much until more roads were built and more people settled the area. There was still a chance for Bickford and Stephens to have their design become the dominant one. The pivotal factor was that an old bridge on the Clark Fork River, the Higgins Bridge, needed to be replaced. Depending on how it was positioned, it would support one grid plan over the other. Whichever road the bridge fed out to would become the primary thoroughfare.

The Higgins Bridge was named after one of Missoula’s founders, C.P. Higgins, who just happened to be friends with Judge Knowles. They agreed to back the north-south alignment that Knowles had planned for, and worked together to influence citizens to take their side. Combined, they had far more influence than Bickford and Stephens, and when it came to a vote, the north-south alignment that Knowles wanted won. The citizens of Missoula would forever pay the price.

Hand-drawn map of Missoula, Montana, by Tim Kordik.

At each intersection where the two grids meet, the single street from the north-south grid has to divide into two streets, with different names. These five-legged junctions at odd angles make it unnecessarily complicated and dangerous to find your way. The worst intersection, nicknamed Malfunction Junction, had six legs, and until its recent redesign (which took eleven years to complete) it was one of the most dangerous and frustrating intersections in America.

This kind of design-by-politics is common, in cities, nations and sometimes even in products themselves. People in power often prioritize their own interests, which means good design to them is that which helps them protect their power. The concerns of the people who will deal with the consequences, perhaps citizens, are secondary at best.

Hand-drawn map of Malfunction Junction in Missoula, Montana, by Tim Kordik.

Melvin Conway, a computer programmer, expresses this idea in a law that is named after him: “Organizations . . . are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.”¹ In other words, the limitations of an organization’s politics are expressed in the design of the things they produce. When one landowner, or executive, doesn’t get along with another, the battle lines between them show up in the product itself, to the detriment of everyone.

This often surfaces in websites for large organizations, like government agencies or universities. Websites should focus on the most frequent things that people who visit need to do. Yet, leaders often assume that the view inside an organization is the best one to share with the world. But that’s like forcing someone who wants to watch a movie to think mostly about how it was made, the movie sets, the cameras, the lights and the producers, instead of experiencing the movie itself. Good movies work because of suspension of disbelief: they are crafted to make you forget about what went on behind the scenes, or that there were scenes, or sets, or lights, at all. Unlike the trap in chapter four, where the Segway project started with the technology first, this is a case of starting with the organization’s politics first. In both cases, it’s the people for whom, in theory, all of the work is being done who lose.

Public Domain.

On a global scale, there are similar stories. At the end of World War I, the Allies worked together to decide what to do with the remains of the Ottoman Empire, which covered much of what we call the Middle East today.

The British and the French worked out a secret plan, called the Sykes–Picot Agreement, which divided up Turkish-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine into areas run by the British or French government. There were three problems. First, François Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes were two mid-level diplomats acting on behalf of their European nations, who had their own agendas for the best use of these lands. Second, neither had a great a great understanding of the history of the people who lived on the lands they were redesigning. Third, the Arabs had been promised independence in return for their cooperation during the war and this pact broke that promise.

Nevertheless, they invented new nations and borders on top of hundreds of years of history and expected their new map, or nation design, to work.² Scott Anderson, author of Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, explains:

If you look at the Middle East today, there’s essentially five artificial nations that were created by Sykes–Picot, the most prominent ones being Iraq and Syria—and Jordan being another one. But anyone looking at Iraq and Syria today sees that the artificial borders that were created have now completely disintegrated . . . The lines crossed tribal lines. They divided up clans and sub-clans.³

After the act was ratified, riots and civil wars began. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it set in motion the Middle East we know today. In response to the unrest they had created, the British and French worked to take away the power that existing groups had. They gave it instead to weak leaders they could manipulate and who posed little threat of revolting. Britain and France did nothing to help soothe the ethnic, religious or linguistic divides they had intensified.

After World War II, the US and the Soviet Union inherited the responsibility from the British and French, maintaining many of the same nation borders using many of the same methods. And according to Anderson, it wasn’t until the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Arab Spring, that the lid on the mess that Sykes–Picot had created by design finally came off.

Many wonder why the Middle East seems to always be in trouble. Or the borders between India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, or Nigeria and Cameroon. While there are many factors, one compelling lens is that people in power, often foreigners, chose the borders to be where they are. And powerful nations exert their influence on other countries for their own reasons, without understanding the history of why those efforts often fail.4

Americans don’t have to travel far to see the power of mapmakers. Gerrymandering, where politicians in office change voting district maps to keep themselves in power, is common practice. More disturbing is the way the US government, after WWII, chose home ownership as the way to rebuild the economy and shore up the middle class for the sixteen million Americans returning from the war (including one million African Americans).5,6 The Federal Housing Administration defined who could get loans, and their manual stated that “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.”7 They made maps of which neighborhoods could get loans: green for yes, and red for no (thus the term redlining).

Through these policies, poor and black neighborhoods were denied loans, as well as the right to move to neighborhoods where loans would be made available. Most Americans assume the free market decides the fate of neighborhoods, and is why some struggle and others thrive, but that’s often not true. Rey Ramsey, former chair of Habitat for Humanity, explains that despite the history, “people are lulled to sleep thinking that certain things happened by default, rather than by design.”8

 

  1. A broader discussion of Conway’s Law can be found on Wikipedia.
  2. The Sykes–Picot map and a discussion of the agreement can be found on Wikipedia.
  3. Scott Anderson on Robert Siegel, host, All Things Considered, NPR radio program; transcript posted May 13, 2016.
  4. Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (Times Books, 2007).
  5. US Department of Veterans Affairs, “America’s Wars,” pdf fact sheet.
  6. Henry Louis Gates Jr., “What Was Black America’s Double War?,” PBS.
  7. Terry Gross, “A ‘Forgotten History’ of How the U.S. Government Segregated America,” NPR, May 3, 2017.
  8. Rey Ramsey in Giorgio Angelini, director, Owned: A Tale of Two Americas, 2018 film.

 

This is an excerpt from How Design Makes the World, published in May 2020, lightly edited for Longreads.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

CALISTOGA, CA — A CalFire firefighter uses a hand tool as he monitors a firing operation while battling the Tubbs Fire on October 12, 2017 near Calistoga, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Abrahm Lustgarten, Greg Jaffe, Omari Weekes and Elias Rodriques, Jeremy Lybarger and Cat Cardenas and Christian Wallace.

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1. Climate Change Will Force a New American Migration

Abrahm Lustgarten | ProPublica | September 15, 2020 | 24 minutes (6,133 words)

“Wildfires rage in the West. Hurricanes batter the East. Droughts and floods wreak damage throughout the nation. Life has become increasingly untenable in the hardest-hit areas, but if the people there move, where will everyone go?”

2. A Pandemic, a Motel Without Power, and a Potentially Terrifying Glimpse of Orlando’s Future

Greg Jaffe | The Washington Post | September 10, 2020 | 17 minutes (4,400 words)

The economic collapse has pushed vulnerable families living in motels near Disney World to the brink.

3. A Close Reading of Randall Kenan, Who Paid Rare Attention to Black Complexity

Omari Weekes, Elias Rodriques | LitHub | September 16, 2020 | 17 minutes (4,444 words)

“Omari Weekes and Elias Rodriques in conversation about the late writer.”

4. Fag Rag: The ’70s Paper Of Gay Political Revolution

Jeremy Lybarger | Columbia Journalism Review | September 11, 2020 | 10 minutes (2,608 words)

Fag Rag wasn’t an idealistic publication; it didn’t suggest that a gay utopia was possible or even desirable. Instead, it pushed for a political revolution that wouldn’t come at the expense of other marginalized groups.”

5. Top Dog: An Oral History of “Wishbone”

Cat Cardenas, Christian Wallace | Texas Monthly | September 16, 2020 | 32 minutes (8,100 words)

“No one had ever done this before. No one had ever put a dog in the middle of the Civil War. How do you actually make that happen?”

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Adam Serwer, Alexandra Marvar, Timothy Snyder, Gaby Del Valle, and Sulaiman Addonia.

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1. The New Reconstruction

Adam Serwer | The Atlantic | September 8, 2020 | 30 minutes (7,613 words)

“There has never been an anti-racist majority in American history; there may be one today in the racially and socioeconomically diverse coalition of voters radicalized by the abrupt transition from the hope of the Obama era to the cruelty of the Trump age. All political coalitions are eventually torn apart by their contradictions, but America has never seen a coalition quite like this.”

2. The Unfinished Story of Emmett Till’s Final Journey

Alexandra Marvar | GEN | September 3, 2020 | 22 minutes (5,559 words)

“Till was murdered 65 years ago. Sites of commemoration across the Mississippi Delta still struggle with what’s history and what’s hearsay.”

3. What Ails America

Timothy Snyder | New York Review of Books | September 3, 2020 | 8 minutes (4,700 words)

“We would like to think we have health care that incidentally involves some wealth transfer; what we actually have is wealth transfer that incidentally involves some health care.”

4. Waiting to Be Thrown Out

Gaby Del Valle | The Verge | September 8, 2020 | 33 minutes (8,280 words)

Following the story of one Cameroonian, Gaby Del Valle dives deep into how video teleconferencing technology in the U.S.’s immigration courts fuels the deportation machine.

5. The Wound of Multilingualism: On Surrendering the Languages of Home

Sulaiman Addonia | LitHub | September 8, 2020 | 6 minutes (1,627 words)

“Learning a language as an adult or in your teens, especially with a history of repeated migrations between languages and countries, is extraordinarily difficult. It isn’t just about swallowing new words like passion fruit that glides down your throat. It’s like chewing on stones breaking your teeth in order to seed the foundations of that new language on your tongue already heavy with many idioms.”