The Longreads Blog

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Teju Cole (Photo by Ulf ANDERSEN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Teju Cole, Barton Gellman, Dexter Filkins, Rebecca May Johnson, and Navneet Alang.

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1. We Can’t Comprehend This Much Sorrow

Teju Cole | The New York Times Magazine | May 18, 2020 | 9 minutes (2,411 words)

“History’s first draft is almost always wrong — but we still have to try and write it.”

2. Since I Met Edward Snowden, I’ve Never Stopped Watching My Back

Barton Gellman | The Atlantic | May 18, 2020 | 25 minutes (6,472 words)

“After receiving a trove of documents from the whistleblower, I found myself under surveillance and investigation by the U.S. government.”

3. The Twilight of the Iranian Revolution

Dexter Filkins | The New Yorker | May 18, 2020 | 39 minutes (9,920 words)

“Even as Iranians speculate about who will succeed Khamenei, many believe that, whoever becomes Supreme Leader, the revolution is no longer salvageable.”

4. Qualities of Earth

Rebecca May Johnson | Granta | May 13, 2020 | 16 minutes (4,171 words)

“That violent heteronormative cultures of sex and reproduction among humans are attributed to ‘nature’ feels astonishing after spending time on the allotment. The slutty ingenuity of vegetables when it comes to desire and reproductive methods is a marvel that makes a mockery of conservative ideas of the natural.”

5. Stewed Awakening

Navneet Alang | Eater | May 20, 2020 | 16 minutes (4,041 words)

On Alison Roman, social media, and the conundrum of formerly “exotic” foods finding mainstream success.

Brené Brown: ‘I think we’re looking for each other.’

Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Netflix

At Texas Monthly, Sarah Hepola profiles researcher and author Brené Brown, whose popularity has grown as people struggle to find connection cooped up inside for weeks on end, and writes about how the virus has demonstrated the myriad ways in which we as humans are vulnerable.

I wanted to know why her message was resounding with so many. There was, of course, the obvious answer: the quarantine heightened the demand for her wisdom on human connection. But I sensed she was speaking to something deeper, to unseen and powerful forces coursing beneath the surface.

The pandemic, for most of us, has been catastrophic and mundane at once. We’ve tracked the escalating death counts, but our days are an accumulation of microsadnesses: the eighth grade graduation canceled, the morning coffee run halted, the long-awaited vacation delayed. Brown had noticed how many were hesitant to grieve the small things because others had it so much worse.Kessler cautioned against comparing our losses. He could win many a grief contest, but what would be the point? “The worst loss is always yours,” he said.

Brown has called the coronavirus a lesson in collective vulnerability. Mother Nature has laid us bare. We’ve been quarantined in our homes with our broken habits for weeks on end, and it has revealed our lives and our country and our planet to be more troubled than we’d imagined. The illusion of safety and happiness had been easier once. But that was just a story we were telling ourselves. The virus has narrative control now.

Maybe that’s why so many people are turning to Brown. Her career has been an attempt to crack the code on vulnerability, but the code has proven uncrackable. Instead, all her data points in the same direction—that we must embrace the struggle. Yes, the struggle is scary and ugly and painful. But the good news is that the struggle might be where we find one another again, see ourselves in the eyes of others, start building the kinds of lives that don’t require hiding. The definition of spirituality that emerged from Brown’s research is that we are inextricably linked by something greater than us. As she says, “Some of us call it God. Some of us call it the human spirit. And some of us call it fishing.”

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Yes, The US Government Spies on US Journalists

Getty Images

Does the public have a right to know when it comes to interests of national security? Unequivocally yes, says journalist Barton Gellman, insisting on the moral requirement to hold governments accountable.

But how can the US government be held accountable when under the flimsy justification of national security, they spy on, harass, and potentially list for arrest or assassination those journalists who are attempting to learn and report the truth?

Gellman went to great lengths to protect notes and transcripts he made interviewing Edward Snowden in Moscow in 2013. He discovered his digital privacy breached several times in the aftermath, thinking the attacks came from Russia, China, Israel, Turkey, and Iran. He eventually found out his own government had been among those that had compromised his accounts.

I moved the audio files from the memory card of my voice recorder to an encrypted archive on my laptop, along with the notes I had typed. I locked the archive in such a way that I could not reopen it without a private electronic key that I’d left hidden back in New York. I uploaded the encrypted archive to an anonymous server, then another, then a third. Downloading it from the servers would require another private key, also stored in New York. I wiped the encrypted files from my laptop and cut the voice recorder’s unencrypted memory card into pieces. Russian authorities would find nothing on my machines. When I reached the U.S. border, where anyone can be searched for any reason and the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment does not apply, I would possess no evidence of this interview. Even under legal compulsion, I would be unable to retrieve the recordings and notes in transit. I hoped to God I could retrieve them when I got home.

Were my security measures excessive? I knew the spy agencies of multiple governments—most notably the United States’—were eager to glean anything they could from Edward Snowden. After all, he had stolen massive amounts of classified material from NSA servers and shared it with Poitras, Greenwald, and me, and we had collectively published only a fraction of it. The U.S. government wanted Snowden extradited for prosecution. But I’m not a thief or a spy myself. I’m a journalist. Was I just being paranoid?

I was not meant to see the iPad do what it had just done; I had just lucked into seeing it. If I hadn’t, I would have thought it was working normally. It would not have been working for me.

This was the first significant intrusion into my digital life—that I knew of. It was far from the last.

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What Happens When You Go Offline

Alastair Grant / AP Photo

Stressed by constant connectivity, exhausted by having to rely on his computer and phone to communicate, artist Sam Winston decided to see what would happen if he tuned out all of modernity’s noise. Instead of just going camping or leaving his phone at home during a long bike ride, he isolated himself in the dark for a few days in his east London studio. “No screens,” Tom Lamont writes in 1843 magazine. “No sun. No visual stimulation of any kind.” Winston taped all his studio windows. He prepared all his food, slept, and worked in darkness. His experiment revealed a lot about the function and capabilities of the human mind under the opposing conditions of constant stimulation and the calm of deprivation. Many of us can relate to Winston’s urge to tune out, if not the way he went about it. Now that so many of us are hunched over our phones during shelter-in-place, relying on screens for news, entertainment, socialization, and work, the onslaught of information is more apparent than ever. Winston wasn’t simply escaping a glut of screens and information. He was escaping our era, one which has evolved so quickly that humanity has barely had time to adjust. A study in 2011 found that on a typical day Americans were taking in five times as much information as they had done 25 years earlier,” Lamont reports, “and this was before most people had bought smartphones.”

The world in the 21st century is no more richly textured or exotic to touch than it used to be. It smells about the same and there are no new flavours. Not since the coming of factories, then aeroplanes, domestic appliances and motorways has there been a serious uptick in sound pollution. Yet the spill of information and distraction that comes at us by eye has grown and grown ceaselessly for two decades, without any sign of a halt or plateau. DM! Breaking-news! Inbox (1)! This is a time of the scrolling, bottomless visual, when bus stops and the curved walls of Tube platforms play video adverts and grandma’s face swims onto a smartphone to say hi. People watch Oscar-nominated movies while standing in queues, their devices held at waist height. A Netflix executive can quip, semi-seriously, that he covets the hours we sleep (hours in which we do not, currently, stream Netflix shows). Apple has put an extra screen on our wrists and Google retains quiet hope that we will eventually wear a screen inside our specs. Big news lands in 140 characters or less, ideally with a startling picture or piece of video, else it doesn’t register as big news.

Our brains tend to lean on the visual, heavily prioritising sight over the other four senses. Ever since we climbed on to two feet as a species, taking our noses farther from the aroma-rich savannah floor, we have been wired to be seeing creatures and for better or worse we usually experience the what’s-next-what’s-next of this world through our peepers. As an artist, Sam Winston was often on the lookout for topsy-turvy projects – weird, sidelong ways to unmoor familiar habits or nudge his work in new directions. He wanted to know what would happen, to him and to his work, if he hid away from the ocular blitz for a while.

Now, working and sleeping in his blacked-out studio, he began to notice new things. Without sunlight as a guide, the day’s rhythms came via aural clues he had been only dimly aware of before: the cessation of London’s air traffic overnight, or the sound of idling vehicles as they took fractionally longer to move off from traffic lights during rush hour. When he brewed cups of rooibos in a rote-remembered action at his tea station he noticed that he could hear the difference between hot and cold liquids as he poured them. He began to see, he later told me, “how intelligent our senses are. And how we just drown them in the tsunami.”

Winston found that he was productive in the dark, too, drawing until his pencils were nubs and creating a series of huge sketches – broad-stroked in places or crowded with overlapping sentences in his crabby handwriting – that would later become part of an exhibition at the Southbank Centre in London. Between drawing jags he had vivid daydreams, even hallucinations, “as if my brain was a digital radio left on search, constantly searching for an available channel”.

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On the Hotness of Not Getting Any

DryWrite / HBO, Element Pictures / BBC

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2020 | 10 minutes (2,500 words)

Isolation is horny as fuck. Not for everyone, obviously, but if you’re single and you live alone. . . I mean, I have never thought this much about sex in my life. Not even in high school. Although this does kind of feel like high school: snacking, jerking off, sort-of working, snacking, jerking off. Or maybe we’re regressing to a point in history when we were exclusively driven by our basest instincts: horny, hungry, trying not to die. In between we binge-stream. And through this fogged up lockdown-induced lens, the horniness of what we are watching is compounded by our own.

Normal People is the big one. The Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s critically felated millennial romance is softcore for hipsters: an outcast girl and a sensitive jock, both of them equally brilliant (of course), having some messy, bildungsroman-style sex over the years (to Imogen Heap, in Malick-ian light) like that’s all the world is. The sex is hot, but everything that happens right before it is hotter. All that staring, all that sizzle — by the time they actually do it, it’s almost an afterthought. Almost. The same goes for Run, the HBO series by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s creative partner, Vicky Jones, about two ex-lovers fleeing their lives to the kind of loin-tingling wit that got us through the Hays Code. Here, once again, the foreplay is the sex. Then there’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the French period piece in which two women, with their eyes alone, strip, fuck, and share a cigarette before they physically do all three.

This is the kind of hot — leg-crossing, side-eying — where you don’t have to say it out loud, you feel it. The kind of hot spun by women from Europe, where sex doesn’t have the same moral implications it does in America. But more than that, it’s a hotness related to a wider move toward women reclaiming their own stories, their own sex. We all know by now that sex under the male gaze tends to objectify women — hotness, in the hands of men, is predominantly naked women getting fucked. Permission is neither here nor there. Under the female gaze, sure, naked women get fucked too, but there’s also enthusiastic consent. Great sex is not orgasm upon orgasm so much as agreement upon agreement, through looks and gestures and breaths and talk — the personification of ongoing accord, no permission slips or questions necessary. The point being that sex isn’t sexy unless it’s between people, not just their bodies; people who change their minds as well as their positions. In isolation, where you have nothing to do but wait for it, it only makes you hotter to watch not only the physical restraint and psychological tease, but every move, every look, every word that says “Yes!” before it’s screamed aloud.

* * *

I have no idea where or when I first heard the term “edging,” but I think it was a couple of years ago. I recall being told that it came from teenagers who used it to describe holding off orgasm deliberately to make it that much stronger in the end, a kind of pleasure binge that seemed to fit that generation (if everything sucks, might as well overdose on suckage). Which is not to say that climax control is new; it goes back to Tantric and Taoist traditions, where it’s less about splooging as hard as you can and more about a kind of physical transcendence. But the idea of mindful sex, of really feeling everything — together — instead of just trying to get yourself off as quickly as possible, didn’t really hit conservative America until the sixties. Masters of Sex reintroduced us to William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the couple responsible for the huge human sexuality study published in 1966 that identified the four-stage sex response: excitement (arousal), plateau (pre-orgasm), orgasm, resolution (post-orgasm). Of course, it turned out that cycle was generally reserved for men, while women across the country were left dissatisfied (and often pregnant). But the sixties and seventies brought heightened awareness of women’s rights along with heightened awareness of sexuality.

Enter edging. “Understanding this new kind of orgasm can be especially difficult for men. When it comes to pleasure, women are the first in line.” This comes from the worryingly titled Extended Massive Orgasm by Vera and Steve Bodansky, a 2002 addition to a slew of slow masturbation and one-hour-orgasm how-to books, all of which fall under the rubric of edging. The Bodanskys emphasize being fully present — fully engaged with yourself and your partner — and aware that the mechanics of sex are not the sole source of pleasure. A human being has a psychological as well as a physical self, and sex also has both elements; eye contact, verbalizing, variations in touch, and breathing responsively aren’t requirements for ejaculation, but they definitely make it more agreeable. Which is why the Bodansky book, somewhat patronizingly, addresses men the way it does. Because sex has been generally dictated by men, it has generally served them and them alone. Putting women first doesn’t mean men are neglected, it means women aren’t.

But Hollywood is still predominantly run by men and men predominantly run it the old way when it comes to heat (erotic thrillers were a brief light at the end of the tunnel, but then the tunnel just kept going). Think of Game of Thrones or anything on Starz: what passes for hot, once again, is conventionally beautiful women with no clothes on being bent over. The physical part may be there, but the psychological part, not to mention the consent, is not. Which is why reality series like Too Hot to Handle (contestants win by not touching) and Love Is Blind (contestants get together before seeing each other) are not particularly orgasmic, though they are positioned as the perfect pandemic watch. The payoff of edging requires real chemistry and it helps to have some real stakes thrown in.

Which is not to say it can’t be fictional. There are nine sex scenes in Normal People. Actually, there are more than nine, but there are nine between the two superficially polar-opposite teens we follow from high school to college. (There are only 12 episodes). Try finding a story about Normal People that doesn’t mention its horniness. You can’t; horniness defines it. Obviously, being particularly susceptible in lockdown to anything related to the possibility of sex has affected how we respond to it, but this is also the kind of hotness that transcends pandemics. Let me explain, with Connell and his little chain.

Connell (Paul Mescal) isn’t just hot because he looks like an animated version of Michelangelo’s David, he’s hot because he looks like an animated version of Michelangelo’s David and is shy. He is hot because he is entirely uncomfortable in his own skin despite inhabiting skin in which he should be entirely comfortable — he is a super-smart, super-handsome, super-athletic white man; how much better can he have it? Connell is hot because despite all of that, he can’t stop staring at the guileless-verging-on-neurodivergent-poor-man’s-Anne-Hathaway Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) when Marcia Brady (that’s not her name, but does she ever look like her) can’t stop staring at him. He is hot because he is charmed as fuck when Marianne, during their second kiss, blurts out the “guy” question: “Now can we take our clothes off?” He is hot because he gives Marianne an out during her first time. He is hot because he takes Marianne’s advice about his future. He is hot because he is inconsolable when he realizes how badly he has treated her by keeping them secret. Connell is hot because as much as Marianne is at his mercy, he is even more at hers.

And the sex scenes in Normal People are hot because the director realizes all of this — that the hotness is as much in everyone’s heads as it is in their bodies. “In some movies, they treat sex scenes like they treat car chases or gun fights, like an opportunity to try a different form of filmmaking,” Lenny Abrahamson told the Irish magazine Hot Press. “How I shot, if we were moving from dialogue to sex, there’s no point where we enter a different dimension, it’s just a continuation of their interaction.” The way the show is filmed, the confined settings, the proximity of the camera to their faces, their eyes — all of it magnifies the intimacy. But it isn’t just in the shooting, it’s also in the choreography. With the help of intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien, every frisson between Connell and Marianne — from every long gaze and every small touch to all that heavy breathing in flagrante — coalesces into an intoxicating six-hour expression of the fluid physical connection between two characters whose psychological connection (whose verbal agreement, even) came first. It’s like nothing else exists but them. These two are entirely in it with each other.

While Run is less about what’s in their heads than what’s coming out of their mouths, its not-so-brief encounter on a train has a similarly close-quartered intimacy. The HBO series stars Merritt Wever as Ruby, a wife and mom of two, and Domhnall Gleeson as Billy, a Jordan Peterson type. The two exes reunite after 15 years on a cross-country trip to escape their lives. She has her family to lose, he has his book deal. The stakes are slightly uneven, but their banter is not: their edgeplay is their wordplay. Like Normal People, the camera stays close to the two lovers who are already confined in their seats (and, later, “roomette”) shoulder to shoulder, face to face, almost mouth to mouth. Just like we do, they become so hot off each other’s proximity that they are forced to take breaks to secretly masturbate in the bathroom. Both of them. Separately.

But here again, as in Normal People, the woman ultimately has all the power. With a family back home, this is Ruby’s encounter to take or leave, not Billy’s. It is her thirst that fuels the ride, not his. “I turned up to have sex,” she says. And later, “I want to fuck you… now.” These exclamations are all the more pregnant for the person saying them — Wever herself has admitted she did not see herself as a lead in a rom-com (Gleeson had already done About Time). And yet here she is not only in one, but subverting it. A man admitting he wants to fuck a woman who might not want to fuck him isn’t transgressive, it’s a cliché. But a woman admitting she wants to fuck a man (more conventionally attractive than she is, more successful, more single) who might reject her? That’s hot. So will he say yes? Do we even need him to anymore? “Holding back on the sex was always something we knew we had to do,” creator Vicky Jones told Refinery29. “Because it’s not really a will-they-won’t-they, since they do. It’s, will they have sex and how?” But with foreplay this good, the sex can’t help but be an anti-climax.

That upending convention, that the woman dominates really, suggests why the queen of edging is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a queer love story by a queer filmmaker (Céline Sciamma) about a painter named Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and her subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). There is no dilution here by the well-trod tropes of male sexuality, there is only a pair of  women drowning in each other. The female gaze turns in on itself as Marianne’s view of Héloïse becomes ours. The film’s title summons the slow burn of their relationship, with every new plateau advancing so achingly slowly — Marianne even seeks consent before repositioning Héloïse’s arm as she sits for her, which is the first time they touch — that every act, when it comes, is that much more extreme, the whole thing mimicking that aforementioned menacing “massive extended orgasm.” It takes 13 minutes for the heroines to meet, despite being in the same house, and even then, one of them is only introduced from behind in a black head-to-toe cloak, a funereal tease. This is no meet-cute; it’s the slowest reveal ever, with her cloak fluttering in the breeze until a mess of blond strands escape, which almost make you gasp despite yourself, before the whole hood falls to expose the back of a blond head. And then, suddenly, the faceless woman is running to her death, we think, until she stops right at the edge of a cliff and, abruptly, turns, her flushed face, her great blue eyes, downplaying the grand mort to a petit mort. “I’ve dreamt of that for years,” Héloïse says breathlessly, post-coitally. A pure distillation of the female apex, no wonder the French, their sexual legacy defined by males, thought the film wasn’t erotic enough.

* * *

The hottest scene in Normal People, ergo the hottest scene of my isolation, doesn’t actually include an orgasm. And it, fittingly, takes a while, not arriving until near the end of the second half of the series, which was directed by Hettie Macdonald. Now in college, no longer dating, Connell and Marianne are sort-of-not-really watching some sports game in Connell’s hot, cramped childhood room in a haze of hormones. Everything is sweating. She stares at him. He stares at the screen. She pretends to sleep. He gets up. “Want some ice cream?” He goes, she stays. He returns. It’s not ice cream, it’s penis-shaped rocket popsicles. And the room is dripping in sex. When Marianne stretches out her bare feet to his end of the bed, I squeak. She says she wants him to kiss her. He says he does too — the pain on his face! — but they always end badly and he doesn’t want to lose her friendship. Fuck. She gets up to leave, telling him not to drop her off at home ‘cause he’ll miss the rest of the match. Olive branch: “I forgot there was a match on, to be honest.” Game on.

Even though the sex is ultimately abandoned (I won’t spoil it), it doesn’t matter. This prelude is more satisfying than 99 percent of the orgasms I’ve ever watched. Despite all the sexual tension, the woman still ultimately commands the room. Theirs and ours. In that Hot Press interview, director Lenny Abrahamson, who shot the first six episodes, laughed perversely about the show coming out during a worldwide pandemic. “You start to miss the human touch, people’s skin — and that is all over the show,” he said. “God help everybody!” But it wasn’t Abrahamson behind the episode I’m talking about, it was a woman. And while it’s true that thirst can hurt, it can also take the edge off, as that scene choreographed by three women — conceived of by Rooney, directed by Macdonald, managed by O’Brien — proves. No one finished, but it wasn’t about that. Because all the elements were there, all that want and all that permission. And that was enough for me, if for no one else. And what was that line again? “When it comes to pleasure, women are the first in line.”

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

This Week in Books: Anarchist Ice Cream and Other Dairies

Belen Bardon, owner of Bardon bookstore, waits for costumers at her shop in Madrid on May 18, 2020. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Dear Reader,

When compiling the reading list this week, I was struck harder than I have been so far by the sensation that time has compressed, or flattened, or leveled out, or I’m not entirely sure what the right spatial metaphor is here, but what I mean is that the time I inhabit feels in no way appreciably different from other times that other people have inhabited. When I read about George Washington fleeing Philadelphia to escape the yellow fever, that doesn’t feel meaningfully different from now. When I read that Emma Goldman co-owned an ice cream parlor in Worcester, Massachusetts, it doesn’t feel uncanny, it just sort of feels like, “Yeah, well, one has to make a living! Anarchist or not, the rent is always due!” Or when I read in A Distant Mirror about the general dismay caused by the corruption and dumbing down of the clergy that resulted from the selling of church appointments to the highest bidder in the 14th century, I feel like I am on the exact same wavelength as Henry of Hereford, who wrote, “Look… at the dangerous situation of those in their charge, and tremble!” They had child bishops; we have Jared Kushner. It’s all one; it’s all bad.

And it seems like a lot of critics are in a similar headspace. Over the weeks, I feel like I’ve watched essayists dig deeper and deeper for “moments to which this moment compares” and what they’ve inadvertently proven is not just that this moment can be compared to so many others, but that all those moments can also be compared to each other as well! George Washington’s enlightened 18th century, Camus’ disastrous 20th, Barbara Tuchman’s calamitous 14th: they’ve all got one thing in common. The secret history of the world rears its ghastly head to reveal what we almost forgot: disease is king.

1. “Pandemics Go Hand in Hand with Conspiracy Theories” by Frederick Kaufman, The New Yorker

Frederick Kaufman writes that when yellow fever hit the newly united States in the 1790s, it led to the development of a new literary style — the American gothic, pioneered by the grieving Charles Brockden Brown in “a million words [that] poured from his pen” from 1798 to 1800, including Wieland, a book about a disembodied voice that drives people insane — as well as a new political style, the much written about “paranoid style” of American politics. Just after the fever ravaged New York in the late 1790s, conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, which had formed in Bavaria in 1776 and been officially banned in 1784, began to proliferate, building into a sort of public panic. Charles Brockden Brown likewise contributed to this new trend; his novel Ormond; or, the Secret Witness, sounds like a Bourne Identity for the 18th century, with the Illuminati playing the global-conspiratorial role of the CIA — or, in this year’s paranoia parlance, the WHO.

2. “Graciliano Ramos and the Plague” by Padma Viswanathan, The Paris Review

Padma Viswanathan writes about coming to the realization that Graciliano Ramos, the giant of Brazilian letters whose novel São Bernardo she recently translated, was motivated to return as a youth from Rio to his remote hometown of Palmeira dos Índios not by disappointment in his lackluster career in journalism, as she originally assumed, but because plague had broken out at home, killing four of his family members in a single day. This insight led Viswanthan to consider how the rest of Ramos’ life’s work — in local government and in literature — was driven by notions of good hygiene, including his translation of Camus’ The Plague.

3. “The First State-Approved North Korean Novel in English” by Esther Kim, Lit Hub

Esther Kim interviews Immanuel Kim, translator of Friend by Paek Namnyong. Immanuel Kim made it his mission to find and translate a popular, non-propagandistic (as in not state-related) North Korean “bestseller” (as in widely read, not widely bought — in North Korea, print runs are limited, but worn copies of Friend, first published in 1988, continue to be passed from hand to hand). “When I started my PhD at UC Riverside in 2000, I was reading South Korean literature minus the colonial period [1910-1945]. All of my colleagues were doing the same, and I wondered, What more can I add to this field? What about North Korea? It was a crazy jump. All my friends were like You’re crazy, man….I started making a personal database of authors that moved me….Then I started looking for stories that were more relatable to the English-speaking world. I read almost a thousand.”

4. “The Fearless Invention of One of L.A.’s Greatest Poets” by Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker

Dan Chiasson writes about the life and work of poet Wanda Coleman. A new volume of her selected poems, Wicked Enchantment, was published last month. “Coleman…was one of the great menders in American verse: she found the extra wear in old forms like the sonnet and rummaged for new forms in everyday material, like aptitude tests, medical reports, and want ads. Poets sometimes brag about their fearsome powers of transformation; Coleman, beset by hardship for much of her life, kept her boasts closer to the bone. ‘I scrape bottom,’ she wrote…”

5. “Food for Thought: Ben Katchor’s Paradise Lost” by J. Hoberman, Bookforum

Ben Katchor’s books are exquisite in an old-timey way that books generally aren’t anymore, sometimes to the point of baroque bewilderment. In this review, J. Hoberman gamely attempts to explain what this latest one, The Dairy Restaurant, is “about.” As with many of Katchor’s books, the gist is that Katchor uses his deep knowledge of niche histories — in this case, Jewish-owned dairy restaurants in New York City and all tangential topics (for instance, did you know Emma Goldman was in the ice cream business?) — to create an almost-alternate history: as in, you’re pretty sure everything Katchor says is true, but the emphasis, the rhythms of history, become fixated on something so deeply unusual — radical dairy consumption — that you become possessed by an alternate vision of what has already transpired.

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6. “At the Clinic” by Sally Rooney, The White Review

A perfect short story by Sally Rooney, which was originally published in The White Review in 2016, and features characters from her novel-cum-show-cum-thing-people-love-to-hate-for-clout Normal People. The Review made the story available online for the first time last week. “People love all kinds of things: their friends, their parents. Misunderstandings are inevitable.”

7. “Neofeudalism: The End of Capitalism?” by Jodi Dean, The Los Angeles Review of Books

Jodi Dean contemplates a question posed by McKenzie Wark in Capital Is Dead: “What if we’re not in capitalism anymore but something worse?” Welcome to neofeudalism, fellow serfs!

8. “We’re All Preppers Now” by Heather Souvaine Horn, The New Republic

Heather Souvaine reviews Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse, a book about prepper subculture, and finds herself understandably more sympathetic to the preppers than the author probably expected the reader would be when he was writing the book. “How do you decide what response is ‘too much,’ when everything we’re currently doing would have been considered too much a few months ago?”

9. “Bournemouth” by Andrew O’Hagan, The London Review of Books

A long, lovely, melancholy essay about the friendship between Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. “I was haunted indeed with a sense that I should never again see him,” James wrote after Stevenson’s death, “but it was one of the best things in life that he was there, or that one had him … He lighted up one whole side of the globe, and was in himself a whole province of one’s imagination.”

10. “How ‘Jakarta’ Became the Codeword for US-Backed Mass Killing” by Vincent Bevins, The New York Reviews of Books

An excerpt adapted from Vincent Bevins’ The Jakarta Method, which makes the argument that the mass murder of communists in Indonesia and Brazil in 1964 and 1965 was a decisive turning point in the Cold War (and a turn for the worse in the history of the world, laying the groundwork for many genocides to come) that is little remembered today because “the truth of what happened contradicts so forcefully our idea of what the cold war was, of what it means to be an American, or how globalization has taken place, that it has simply been easier to ignore it.”

Every week I make a list on our Bookshop page of all the books and authors mentioned in all of the readings in the newsletter this week. If you feel like taking a look-see, here is this week’s massive reading list.

Stay safe,

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor
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Shelved: The Misfits’ 12 Hits From Hell

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Tom Maxwell | Longreads | April 2020 | 10 minutes (2,607 words)


The Misfits have carved a niche in punk rock history. Their 1982 song “Skulls” has everything that defined them: the breakneck tempo, blocky rhythm chords, and the cartoon monster lyric. “Demon I am and face I peel,” songwriter and frontman Glenn Danzig sings.

See your skin turned inside out, ‘cause

Gotta have you on my wall

Gotta have you on my wall, ‘cause

I want your skulls

I need your skulls

As punk rock music with B-movie horror film lyrics, the Misfits are immediately understandable. The music suits a mosh pit as much as a Spotify Halloween playlist. The original incarnation of the band, which lasted from 1977 to 1983, helped establish the “horror punk” genre. “Skulls” appears on Walk Among Us, one of only two full-length albums released by the Misfits during those first five years, and the album is generally considered a classic. With 13 songs clocking in at a total of 25 minutes, it’s punk through-and-through: no time is wasted on bridges and guitar solos.

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How to Pitch Personal Essays to Longreads: An Updated Guide

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Are you interested in publishing essays on Longreads? It’s important that you read these new submissions guidelines before pitching.

Recently we’ve undergone some budget cuts due to the Coronavirus pandemic and some other changes. As a result, we’re publishing fewer pieces than we used to, and selecting most of those based on whether they fit within a few specific series we’ve developed. While there will still very occasionally be room for some more general, broader interest pieces, we’ll be mainly focusing on the following series for now:

1. Life in the Time of Covid

— In recent months, a new reality has been foisted upon us. Coronavirus has changed our home lives, our work lives, our family lives. These essays will look at the virus’ impact on the way we spend our time now, and its effect on our relationships with friends, family, partners, co-workers, and others. Read more…

The Can That Was Supposed to Help Save a City

Amy Sancetta / AP Photo

Like many cities whose economies once relied on manufacturing, sections of Youngstown, Ohio, have fallen into disarray. But the city had a plan to revive Youngstown’s East Side, where steel manufacturing once ruled: Joseph Co. International would build a $20 million dollar campus to produce Chill-Can, the world’s first self-cooling beverage can, create jobs, and revive the city. In a collaboration between Youngstown’s Business Journal and ProPublica, reporter Dan O’Brien writes about this ambitious, failed saga of product development and urban renewal, and the difficult bargain cities and corporations make. Youngstown bulldozed homes to build the campus. They gave Joseph a $1.5 million grant, which included funds officials took from sewer and water projects. “This is going to revolutionize the beverage industry,” Joseph’s CEO told one publication. “There will be no other facility like it in the world.” But as O’Brien reports, the facility remains unfinished, and no jobs have been created. The problem involves the city’s approach to redevelopment, which reaches far beyond Chill-Can.

While some firms failed to deliver, officials acknowledge, Youngstown’s program has ultimately leveraged private investments of more than $755 million and has helped create a total of 2,493 jobs out of a promised 2,861, according to city records. Still, The Business Journal and ProPublica found that more than half of those jobs were created by just five companies, including a Toys R Us distribution center and Exal Corp., which manufactures aluminum cans and bottles. Exal has since reduced its workforce, while the Toys R Us warehouse closed. (That facility is now occupied by HMS Manufacturing, which employs far fewer workers than the toyseller did at its peak).

Now, Youngstown’s approach to economic development is coming under greater scrutiny as the city’s former finance director and a prominent developer prepare to face trial on public corruption charges. At the heart of the case are allegations that officials steered taxpayer funds to favored projects in exchange for bribes. The defendants have pleaded not guilty. Separately, the state auditor has alleged that officials misappropriated money from the city’s water and wastewater funds and used it to spur a number of development deals, including Chill-Can. The city is now fighting a directive from that office to repay millions of dollars, arguing, in part, that such a move would plunge Youngstown into fiscal peril.

First Ward Councilman Julius Oliver, who represents a portion of the East Side neighborhood where Chill-Can is located, describes Youngstown’s incentives system as “broken” and has pushed for more accountability against companies that have not met their promised job goals.

“We have people within our city government that could be doing more, and quite frankly, they’re not,” Oliver said. “You can’t keep using the same excuse over and over again.”

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The Lie of ‘One Last Time’ with My Ex

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Ella Dawson | Longreads | May 2020 | 15 minutes (3,819 words)

Henry and I had break-up sex on at least four different occasions, maybe more. I wanted to believe it was because we loved each other that much, when really I was unwilling to read the writing on the wall. It took me years to pry my fingers from his pant-leg and let go of our relationship. In fits of pique I wondered if he was the one who got away, less of a daydream than a deep anxiety that I’d bump into him decades later and love him just as much as I did the day we decided it was the last time. And the next time we decided it was the last time. And the time after that.

We technically broke up in May of 2014 at my college graduation only to get back together six days later when we decided we could overcome the hundreds of miles between Bakersfield and Berkeley. He told me his parents offered to pay for half of the gas required to drive up to see me — it was only when the summer was over that I learned he’d lied and paid for everything himself. We were smart kids who knew long-distance was doomed, but there are some lessons you need to learn for yourself lest you spend the rest of your life wondering if you would have been the exception. We weren’t. It only took us another two months of longing and conflict avoidance to break up again in the kitchen of his parent’s home.

The breakup was not mutual. I scream-cried like someone had died. When I stalked off to sob in the guest room, I expected him to follow me and take it back. Instead he folded his hands together on the kitchen table and clenched them tight, his willpower miraculously holding firm. This turn of events was as surreal as it was humiliating: I sat on the floor and stared at the portraits of his relatives above the heavy antique bed, the extended family I assumed would be mine someday. Two months wasn’t long enough to really try, was it? Two months was summer camp. It wasn’t even a full season. How had he already decided this wasn’t possible? Was I just not good enough to fight for?

We broke up for all the same reasons college sweethearts break up: our lives were taking us in separate directions, and long-distance was as shitty as everyone warned us it would be. I was graduating. Henry, two years younger, was moving to Asia for his junior year, for an ambitious study-abroad program and didn’t want to be the guy always on his phone. I was reeling with post-grad identity issues and undiagnosed anxiety and depression, and I often called him crying while my roommate scowled outside my bedroom. Once when my laptop stopped working, I had a full tilt panic attack over FaceTime as he helplessly Googled Apple store locations near my apartment. Simply put, I was a disaster and we were young. It was too much for him to handle and too much for me to understand, and I took our generic problems personally instead of seeing our breakup as the natural progression of events. All I could believe at age 22 was that he’d given up on our future together, and it must mean I wasn’t worth it after all.
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