This week, we’re sharing stories from Bee Wilson, Seyward Darby, Wil S. Hylton, Greg Milner, and Annie Dillard.
The Longreads Blog
In recent months, there’s been a lot of hubbub and even a little hysteria over the fate of the personal essay. It began with a New Yorker piece by Jia Tolentino with the headline, “The Personal Essay Boom is Over.”
But Tolentino wasn’t proclaiming the death of the entire category, just essays of a certain kind: often sensationalized, barely edited accounts of very personal experiences with click-baitish headlines. The pieces tended to lack reflection, and offered little connection between their anecdotes and something larger.
Having regrettably fired off some pretty half-baked “essays” along those lines myself years ago, I’m not sorry to see that trend die. I see it as a good thing for readers and writers alike that the bar has been raised.
If any doubts still remain about the vitality of the genre, let me offer my beast of an inbox as an indication that rumors of the personal essay’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Tolentino’s piece was published around the same time that I put out some calls for personal essay submissions, and also around the time we updated our submissions guidelines. One of my calls for submissions was then picked up by a website popular with aspiring freelance writers, and as a result of this confluence, since then, I’ve been hit with an ongoing deluge of essays. At its peak, I was receiving more than 100 a week. (It didn’t help that between May and July, the The New York Times‘ Modern Love column was on hiatus from accepting new essays.)
Because there are so many people emailing me essays every day — more than I can respond to — and because I am ramping up from 8 essays a month to 10 or 12, I thought it might be a good idea to post here clarifying what I’m looking for, what are the best ways to pitch me, and what you can expect from working with me once I choose your essay.
In the week since white supremacists descended on Charlottesville with tiki torches blazing, tech companies have begun to eliminate website hosting or accounts run by neo-Nazis. The decision to kick people off the internet—a world many of us occupy in equal measure, if not more than we do the physical one around us—is not one taken lightly, and these companies have remained cautious until proven complicit.
The CEO of Cloudflare, Matthew Prince, explained in a public blog post why he chose to drop the Daily Stormer, a hate-mongering website that published openly racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist screeds, including a post about Heather Heyer. “Our terms of service reserve the right for us to terminate users of our network at our sole discretion,” writes Prince. “The tipping point for us making this decision was that the team behind Daily Stormer made the claim that we were secretly supporters of their ideology.” (ProPublica skewered Cloudfare earlier this year for providing the Daily Stormer with information about people who criticized or complained about the website’s explicitly offensive content.)
Cloudflare is not alone in abandoning Nazi clients. As Adrienne Jeffries reported at The Outline, in the last few days Squarespace has dropped an array of so-called “alt-right” sites, including the think tank of neo-Nazi poster boy Richard Spencer. On Tuesday, Sean Captain at Fast Company noticed that publishing platform WordPress.com (the parent company of Longreads) is no longer hosting the website for the ultra-nationalist organization Vanguard America. (The man who drove the car that killed Heyer and injured 19 other people was allegedly a Vanguard America member, though the organization has tried to disown him.) Read more…
Joanna Petrone | Longreads | August 2017 | 28 minutes (7,729 words)
It comes on suddenly as a gas main explosion, the feeling of being grabbed tightly from within and twisted. I am standing at the front of my classroom, at one, almost, with its beige institutional carpeting and faint but pervasive smell of damp paper. I’m instructing sixth-graders — sleepy and vaguely conspiratorial-looking, the way they often are on Fridays in January just after lunch — when that blue flash of pain rips through me. I stop talking. I freeze, hand on belly, and wait to find out if I’ll vomit.
Inside me everything is lightening bolts and banshee wails and chaos. Outside, obedient, slightly bored students print in marble composition notebooks. Not one of my charges says anything — no one has noticed — so I steady my breathing and shuffle next door to find another teacher to cover for me.
On the toilet, I check my underpants. There is no new red blood — only the same smear of tacky rust-colored discharge that’s been soiling my pads for weeks. The bathroom light, set to a motion-sensitive timer, blinks out into darkness while I sit stock still, afraid and in pain, replaying the highlights of the last two weeks: positive pee sticks, phone calls and doctor’s offices, a sequence of blood tests, an ultrasound confirming a mass in my right adnexa (a uterine appendage), and, last night, a duo of cheerful ER nurses sheathed in full-body, bright orange hazmat suits injecting an abortifacient into my backside.
To turn the light back on, I need to move, but I am immobilized by pain so intense I can no longer tell where in my body it is coming from. After a time, the pain quiets enough for me to think over it and will my body into action. I flail my hands to trigger the light, stand up, wash. Maybe this is cramps from the methotrexate working, I think, just very bad cramps, signaling the welcome end of a doomed, rogue pregnancy.
Our notions of health and wellness (both charged terms these days, one might add) are still stuck in a paradigm that wouldn’t be out of place in ancient Greece; what goes on inside us must somehow be visible and recognizable on our bodies’ surface. In her Guardian essay on the rise of orthorexia — the obsession with consuming pure, “perfect” foods — Bee Wilson traces the history of a recent-yet-oh-so-familiar publishing trend: using youthful, tradtionally good-looking women to sell both specific products (hello, coconut-and-oat energy balls!) and an amorphous, ever-shifting “clean” lifestyle.
Every wellness guru worth her Himalayan pink salt has a story of how changing what you eat can change your life. “Food has the power to make or break you,” wrote Amelia Freer in her 2014 bestseller Eat. Nourish. Glow. (which has sold more than 200,000 copies). Freer was leading a busy life as a personal assistant to the Prince of Wales when she realised that her tummy “looked and felt as if it had a football in it” from too many snatched dinners of cheese on toast or “factory-made food”. By giving up “processed” and convenience foods (“margarine, yuck!”) along with gluten and sugar, Freer claimed to have found the secrets to “looking younger and feeling healthier”.
Perhaps the best-known diet-transformation story of all is that of Ella Mills — possessor of more than a million Instagram followers. In 2011, Mills was diagnosed with postural tachycardia syndrome, a condition characterised by dizziness and extreme fatigue. Mills began blogging about food after discovering that her symptoms radically improved when she swapped her sugar-laden diet for “plant-based, natural foods.” Mills — who used to be a model — made following a “free-from” diet seem not drab or deprived, but deeply aspirational. By the time her first book appeared in January 2015, her vast following on social media helped her to sell 32,000 copies in the first week alone.
There was something paradoxical about the way these books were marketed. What they were selling purported to be an alternative to a sordidly commercial food industry. “If it’s got a barcode or a ‘promise’, don’t buy it,” wrote Freer. Yet clean eating is itself a wildly profitable commercial enterprise, promoted using photogenic young bloggers on a multi-billion-dollar tech platform. Literary agent Zoe Ross tells me that around 2015 she began to notice that “the market was scouring Instagram for copycat acts — specifically very pretty, very young girls pushing curated food and lifestyle.”
Joshua Adams | Longreads | August 2017 | 11 minutes (2,840 words)
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I had no idea about the University of Virginia. I knew I wanted to go away for college, and from about the time I was 10 years old, my mind was set on attending the University of Michigan. If it weren’t for my father constantly checking college rankings in magazines and taking me on college tours my junior and senior years of high school, UVA wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. But soon I got to see how beautiful the campus and city of Charlottesville were. Everything on the grounds has an historical aura to it — the neoclassical architecture, the Amphitheatre, Edgar Allen Poe’s room, the Rotunda designed by founder Thomas Jefferson, a man who at that point I knew little more about than what they teach you in grade school. I didn’t research UVA’s acceptance rates, tuition, majors, alumni success rates, or any of that stuff, because after I saw the alluring Central Grounds, I was sold.
That fall, my family and I drove to Virginia from Illinois, and I settled into the Kent building of what are known as “Old Dorms.”
The first year transition into UVA was rough. I was battling recurring bouts of colds and flus, and felt socially isolated as an out-of-state student and the only Black male from Chicago. I felt like I was falling through the cracks, and didn’t know who to reach out to. But by my second year, my health improved, I felt more comfortable in my surroundings, and I found my niche within African American Studies and English classes. Add the immeasurable warmth of folks like legendary dining hall cashier Mrs. Kathy McGruder, long lunch and dinner dates in Newcomb with groups of friends, and the hilarity of “Adventures of Cavman” at home football games, and C-Ville and UVA became my second home.
I will always have enormous affection for Charlottesville. In reflective moments, I look back and feel blessed to have called it home for four crucial, formative years of my college life. Charlottesville has figured into my professional life, too. My first ever print feature story as a journalist was with its local paper, C-VILLE Weekly.
Last weekend, I found myself glued to the television as the“Unite the Right” rallies unfolded. Alumni all over the country took to social media to give updates about what was going on. The footage of white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. driving into counter-protesters left me speechless. Charlottesville being in the national headlines for domestic terrorism might not have seemed predictable for that quaint and quiet college town. However, as positive as my feelings are towards the place, I can’t say I was entirely surprised about this attack. It was undoubtedly tragic, but I think we’d be dishonoring the memory of Heather Heyer and what she stood for to see it as unprecedented.
Doing construction in New York City is dangerous and expensive. Cut the pavement in the wrong place and crews can rupture gas lines. Hit a water main, short a backup generator. These sorts of mistakes cost the city $300 million each year. Worse yet are natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy — where floods caused a three-day blackout and left two hospitals without power — and threats like buried chemical tanks and national security issues. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Greg Milner follows the people who are creating the city’s first three-dimensional subsurface infrastructure map to create a safer city that can self-regulate and grow more efficiently, and where agencies and private utilities can coordinate. In a very real sense they are pioneers, of a frontier that lays below our feet. Detailing pipes, cables, sewers, wires and electric lines, even soil types, the map will be the first of its kind, and if it works, it could make New York a model for the world’s future smart cities.
Because of data from satellites, we can now map the world down to about 6 inches. We’ve almost reached the point Jorge Luis Borges describes in his short story “On Exactitude in Science,” in which cartographers built “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” But the world beneath our feet remains shrouded in darkness. “Light and radio waves don’t go through dirt like they do air,” says George Percivall, chief technical officer for the Open Geospatial Consortium, which is helping to develop global standards for underground mapping. “The next frontier, in both a literal and figurative sense, is underground.”
New York City’s daunting infrastructural labyrinth is like the “Here be dragons” decorating ancient maps. Underneath the 6,000 miles of asphalt and concrete road lie thousands of miles of water, sewer, gas, telecommunications, and electrical infrastructure. And let’s not forget the 500 miles of underground subway tracks or Con Edison’s 100-mile steam delivery system. In its entirety, it’s known to no one. The individual details of the vast underground are hoarded and guarded by the various stakeholders. Con Edison has its electrical map; the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) keeps track of water and sewer pipes; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) could tell you where the transit tunnels are; and so on.
Imagine the city as a living organism, a body consisting of various systems—respiratory, nervous, skeletal—that share the same space and even intertwine. Now imagine surgery performed on that body by a surgeon who knows the location of only one system, who looks at the body and sees only blood vessels or bones. This is the odd condition of New York—a body subject to what, viewed through a wide lens, looks like perpetual triage. Each year, for repairs or to facilitate construction, the streets are sliced open 200,000 times—an average of almost 550 cuts per day, or 30 per street mile every year.
At The Atlantic, Ross Andersen excerpts Annie Dillard’s classic 1982 personal essay, “Total Eclipse,” from her new collection, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New.
Dillard writes in exquisite detail about the haunting, surreal experience of witnessing the last solar eclipse to have been visible on the mainland of the United States on February 26th, 1979, after driving with her husband five hours inland in Washington State to catch the view from a hill top.
The full text of the essay will remain on the site for free until next Tuesday, August 22 — the day after “The Great American Eclipse,” which is inspiring eclipse tourism, and lots of astrological predictions.
Now the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually loses color. This was a saturated, deep indigo, up in the air. Stuck up into that unworldly sky was the cone of Mount Adams, and the alpenglow was upon it. The alpenglow is that red light of sunset which holds out on snowy mountaintops long after the valleys and tablelands are dimmed. “Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.
I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.
Last Saturday evening, Charlottesville police chief Al Thomas held a press conference about the events that day that unfolded under his watch “We love our city,” he said in conclusion. “Let us heal. This is not our story. Outsiders do not tell our story.”
I was born and raised in Charlottesville. I attended and graduated from its public schools; I still live in the city and call it home. After a weekend in which the national media descended upon our downtown and broadcast the unfolding story with the nuance of a parade of elephants, Thomas’s sentiment was welcome. Aside from being heartbroken and outraged, I was tired. Tired of talking heads calling our town Charlotte, of “The South” appearing in print as some strange monolithic mystery region somewhere below Philadelphia, of factual errors confusing the city with adjacent poor and rural counties, of accusing fingers pointed without question at the police and the local government, of former UVA students who spent all of four years here weighing in as if experts, of a lack of context, a lack of understanding of the city as a specific place with a specific history at a specific moment in time.
At UCLA’s Donated Body Program, Dean Fisher uses a device to dissolve the dead bodies of donors. This alkaline hydrolysis machine, called the “Resomator,” turns bodies into liquid and pure white bone, which is then pounded and scattered at sea. Compared to cremation, alkaline hydrolysis is better for the environment, yet the process is currently only legal in the U.K. and in 14 U.S. states and three Canadian provinces. Is this the machine that could disrupt the death industry?
At Wired UK, Hayley Campbell explores this process of water cremation, which a growing number of advocates is calling a cleaner, more efficient, and ultimately less expensive alternative to burial and traditional cremation.
The machine is mid-cycle. Fisher, grey-haired and tall in light green scrubs, explains what’s happening inside the high-pressure chamber: potassium hydroxide is being mixed with water heated to 150°C. A biochemical reaction is taking place and the flesh is melting off the bones. Over the course of up to four hours, the strong alkaline base causes everything but the skeleton to break down to the original components that built it: sugar, salt, peptides and amino acids; DNA unzips into its nucleobases, cytosine, guanine, adenine, thymine. The body becomes fertiliser and soap, a sterile watery liquid that looks like weak tea. The liquid shoots through a pipe into a holding tank in the opposite corner of the room where it will cool down, be brought down to an acceptable pH for the water treatment plant, and be released down the drain.
Fisher says I can step outside if it all gets too much, but it’s not actually that terrible. The human body, liquefied, smells like steamed clams.