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Longreads Best of 2018: Essays

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in essays.

Aram Mrjoian
A writer, editor, instructor, and PhD student at Florida State University.

I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye (Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Atlantic)

This fall, I taught my freshman composition classes through a pop culture lens. Many of my students had been indoctrinated with the false promises of the five-paragraph essay and began the year with the certainty first-person point of view had no place in professional or academic writing. After I assigned this personal essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates during week one, most, if not all, of them changed their minds. Coates dissects the celebrity of Kanye West by interweaving personal narrative, meticulous research, and deft cultural and political commentary. It’s a remarkable model for what the personal essay can accomplish. How Coates ties the personal to the societal to the universal is hard to match. Coates’s ease in presenting West’s cross-generational relevance also presented an important point of connection between my students and me. Regardless of the age gap, we had all grown up on Kanye’s music. Our mutual familiarity opened up an important conversation about the divide between art and the artist, as well as the sticky social, cultural, and political complexities of fame. Throughout the semester, I found my students returning to this piece. It became a common point of reference. Certainly this essay was a pleasure to teach, but it also had much to teach me, and for that I am grateful.
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Longreads Best of 2018: All of Our No. 1 Story Picks

All through December, we’ll be featuring Longreads’ Best of 2018. Here’s a list of every story that was chosen as No. 1 in our weekly Top 5 email.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Carr Fire
Terray Sylvester / Getty Images

This week, we’re sharing stories from Lizzie Johnson, Erica L. Green and Katie Benner, Jamie Lauren Keiles, Laurie Penny, and Jen Doll.

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The Case for Letting Malibu Burn

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

Mike Davis | Ecology of Fear | Metropolitan Books | September 1998 | 20 minutes (5,921 words)

 

“Homes, of course, will arise here in the thousands. Many a peak will have its castle.”

—John Russell McCarthy, These Waiting Hills (1925)

 

Late August to early October is the infernal season in Los Angeles. Downtown is usually shrouded in acrid yellow smog while heat waves billow down Wilshire Boulevard. Outside air-conditioned skyscrapers, homeless people huddle miserably in every available shadow.

Across the Harbor Freeway, the overcrowded tenements of the Westlake district—Los Angeles’s Spanish Harlem—are intolerable ovens. Suffocating in their tiny rooms, immigrant families flee to the fire escapes, stoops, and sidewalks. Anxious mothers swab their babies’ foreheads with water while older children, eyes stinging from the smog, cry for paletas: the flavored cones of shaved ice sold by pushcart vendors. Shirtless young men—some with formidable jail-made biceps and mural-size tattoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe across their backs—monopolize the shade of tienda awnings. Amid hundreds of acres of molten asphalt and concrete there is scarcely a weed, much less a lawn or tree.

Thirty miles away, the Malibu coast—where hyperbole meets the surf—basks in altogether different weather. The temperature is 85°F (20 degrees cooler than Downtown), and the cobalt blue sky is clear enough to discern the wispish form of Santa Barbara Island, nearly 50 miles offshore. At Zuma surfers ride the curl under the insouciant gazes of their personal sun goddesses, while at Topanga Beach, horse trainers canter Appaloosas across the wet sand. Indifferent to the misery on the “mainland,” the residents of Malibu suffer through another boringly perfect day.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Miami Herald

This week, we’re sharing stories from Julie K. Brown, Joe Sexton, Zachary R. Mider and Zeke Faux, Bruce Grierson, and Michael Hainey.

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The Rising Tide of Wrongful Convictions

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Lara Bazelon | an excerpt adapted from Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction | Beacon Press | 24 minutes (6,738 words)

The National Registry of Exonerations is a small, nonprofit research project founded in 2012. What the project lacks in manpower it makes up in zeal, documenting every known exoneration dating back to 1989, the first year that DNA exonerations were recorded in the United States. Staff members collect detailed information about each case from court documents and news reports, provide a comprehensive narrative about the case, and break down the data into numerous categories, including gender, race, geography, crime of conviction, factors that contributed to the wrongful conviction, and whether the case involved DNA. The registry’s website provides detailed graphs that set out the cause or causes of the wrongful convictions and chart their frequency over time.

On March 7, 2017, the registry released a report summarizing the data it had documented since its founding: 1,994 exonerations. (The number is now above 2,100.) Seventy-eight percent of the exonerations did not involve DNA evidence. This finding surprises many people, as it seems at odds with the way that crime is prosecuted on popular television shows and in movies, where the perpetrator inevitably leaves behind a tiny but undeniable bit of himself. Skin follicles are collected from under the victim’s fingernails, blood or semen is retrieved from a stain, a trace of saliva is lifted from a soda can or cigarette butt. In fictionalized accounts, diligent detectives and technicians rapidly collect and analyze this trace DNA evidence. More often than not, when the episode concludes, the bad guy has been conclusively identified, apprehended, and locked away.

The reality is much messier and more complicated. Even when DNA exists, backlogs and bureaucracy mean that it can take months, if not years, to test. Crime labs also come to erroneous conclusions, often because the technicians are incompetent, overwhelmed, or even corrupt. In 2010, at a San Francisco crime laboratory, a technician stole some of the cocaine she was supposed to be testing, resulting in a scandal that led to the dismissal of seventeen hundred pending criminal cases. Five years later, in the same laboratory, two other bad apples — a technician and her immediate supervisor — were discovered to have committed misconduct so serious it required the San Francisco district attorney’s office to review fourteen hundred criminal cases. Both employees had failed DNA proficiency testing examinations administered by a national crime lab accrediting agency a year earlier, but had kept their jobs. At least one found conclusive DNA matches where none existed. Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Getty Images

This week, we’re sharing stories from Sasha Issenberg, Libby Copeland, Jamilah King, Berry Grass, and Dayna Evans.

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Who Cares? : On Nags, Martyrs, the Women Who Give Up, and the Men Who Don’t Get It

Getty / Collage by Katie Kosma

Gemma Hartley | an excerpt adapted from Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward | HarperOne | November 2018 | 16 minutes (4,288 words)

 

“Just let me do it,” I told Rob as I watched him struggle to fold our daughter’s fitted sheet shortly after he took over laundry duty. It’s a phrase I’m sure he’s heard from me countless times, and even when I’m not saying it out loud, I’ve often implied it with a single you’re-doing-it-wrong stare. I cannot pretend that I have not played a part in creating such a deep divide in the emotional labor expectations in my home. I want things done a certain way, and any deviation from my way can easily result in me taking over. If the dishwasher is loaded wrong, I take it back on instead of trying to show my husband how to load it. If the laundry isn’t folded correctly, I’ll decide to simply do it myself. On occasion I have found myself venting with friends that it is almost as if our male partners are purposefully doing things wrong so they won’t have to take on more work at home.

While I don’t think this has been the case in my own home, for some women this is a reality. A 2011 survey in the UK found that 30 percent of men deliberately did a poor job on domestic duties so that they wouldn’t be asked to do the job again in the future. They assumed that their frustrated partners would find it easier to do the job themselves than deal with the poor results of their half-hearted handiwork. And they were right. A full 25 percent of the men surveyed said they were no longer asked to help around the house, and 64 percent were only asked to pitch in occasionally (i.e., as a last resort).

Even if men aren’t consciously doing a poor job to get out of housework, their lackluster “help” still frustrates. A similar survey conducted by Sainsbury’s in the UK found that women spent a whole three hours per week, on average, redoing chores they had delegated to their partners. The list where men fell short left little ground uncovered: doing the dishes, making the bed, doing the laundry, vacuuming the floors, arranging couch cushions, and wiping down counters were all areas of complaint. Two-thirds of the women polled felt convinced that this was their partner’s best effort, so perhaps it’s not surprising that more than half didn’t bother “nagging” them to do better. They simply followed their partners around and cleaned up after them. Read more…

The Second Half of Watergate Was Bigger, Worse, and Forgotten By the Public

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David Montero | an excerpt adapted from Kickback: Exposing the Global Corporate Bribery Network | Viking | November 2018 | 16 minutes (4,298 words)

In 1975, Peter Clark was a young attorney in the Enforcement Division of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Founded three years earlier, the Enforcement Division was tasked with investigating possible violations of federal securities laws. One morning, Clark was in his office when the division’s director, Stanley Sporkin, appeared, greatly vexed. Sporkin, tall and corpulent with deep-set eyes, was waving a newspaper, Clark recalled. “How the ‘bleep’ could a publicly held company have a slush fund?” Sporkin asked.

Two years had passed since the Watergate scandal broke, and less than a year since President Nixon had resigned, but the reverberations of the scandal were still rocking Washington. Its revelation that multinational corporations, including some of the most prestigious brands in the United States, had been making illegal contributions to political parties not only at home but in foreign countries around the world would later be described by Ray Garrett, the chairman of the SEC, as “the second half of Watergate, and by far the larger half.” Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Christophe Morin / IP3 / Getty Images

This week, we’re sharing stories from Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Confessore, Cecilia Kang, Matthew Rosenberg, and Jack Nicas; Phil Klay, Harley Rustad, Michael Graff, and Alan Siegel.

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