Category Archives: Reading List

Leave _____ Alone: Celebrity, Privacy, and Entitlement

I read Alana Massey’s essay collection All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers, with a pencil in hand. I read it behind the counter at work, when it was quiet and customer-free. I read it in bed, long after my partner and cat had fallen asleep. I read it in Starbucks when I should’ve been writing but needed inspiration. Massey is a writer I’ve followed since I became interested in longform journalism. I admired her incisive blend of pop culture and cultural and literary criticism. I especially loved anytime she wrote about religion, like her time at Yale Divinity School, because I went to a conservative Christian college, and I was yearning to see how I could translate my weird vaguely traumatic religious background into beautiful sentences. So I bought her book as a reward for myself, for meeting a writing deadline.

This reading list was partially inspired by Massey’s excellent writing about her muses and the way our society honors and rejects celebrated women. Here, my list is about our society’s inclination, if not blatant desire, to know every little detail about our favorite celebrities and judge them according to our own arbitrary moral standards. (I’m not immune to this — I spent ten minutes in bed Googling potential paramours of one of my favorite YouTube stars, even though I know it’s none of my damn business.) Why do we feel like we own celebrities — not just their art or their products, but their images and their personal lives? What do celebrities owe us, if anything?

One of the many moments that struck me in All The Lives I Want was a quotation from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, which Massey employs in her own essay about the Lisbon sisters: “In the end, we had the pieces of the puzzle, but no matter how we put them together, gaps remained, oddly shaped emptinesses mapped by what surrounded them, like countries we couldn’t name.” We can know our celebrities’ favorite foods, their birthdays, and their thoughts on feminism, but we can’t know them, no matter how many Instagram Live videos they share, exercise classes they teach, or meet-and-greets they attend. Are we prepared to accept that?

1. What We Miss When We Miss Richard Simmons

On Thursday, People magazine released a teaser for their weekend issue, Richard Simmons’ smiling face on the cover. His presence coincides with his absence from the finale of “Missing Richard Simmons,” a super-popular six-part podcast debating the whereabouts of the exercise guru, who disappeared from public life several years ago. I listened to the first three episodes, which were beautifully produced, but eventually I felt weird about the whole conceit. I was sad for Simmons’ friends, sure — how would I feel if someone I loved dropped off the face of the earth and didn’t think to let me know? Then again, none of my friends are cultural icons who spent most of their adult lives in the public eye. “Missing Richard Simmons” demonstrates far more about the people who yearn for Richard’s public resurrection and our oblivious entitlement to the private lives of celebs.

At The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert wrote “The Ethical Minefield of Missing Richard Simmons” (March 2017) about the ethics of journalism and the ethics of friendship:

“[Podcast host Dan Taberski] rehashed questions about Simmons’s sexuality, his mental health, and the rumor that he was transitioning from male to female. He weighed his subject’s desire for privacy with his own desire for information and closure, and decided that the latter was more important.”

And Linda Holmes wrote “‘Missing Richard Simmons’ And The Nature Of Being Known” (March 2017) about the importance of boundaries professional and personal:

“The more the gratitude is for what has already been done, the more it is written on paper: I’m so grateful for the thing you made; it meant the world to me. That is weightless; it is wonderful. The closer it gets to expecting something from you in the future, something that must continue, the more it is written on stone: You’re the only one who understands me. You’re the only reason I can get out of bed every day. I have a feeling Richard Simmons received a lot of gratitude written on stones.”

2. Massey’s Corner

Let’s kick off Massey’s Corner with “Your Imaginary Relationship With a Celebrity” (Pacific Standard, April 2015). In the 1950s, Massey explains, researchers named a new kind of relationship: “parasocial interaction,” which described the bond fans felt with the burgeoning TV stars of their time. The intensity of parasocial interaction has only increased with time, creativity, and social media. There’s the illusion of egalitarianism, now, as Taylor Swift sends care packages and Christmas gifts to the laypeople and Selena Gomez reveals which CD she’d choose, if she were you.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include excerpts from All The Lives I Want:

3. The Excess of Access

  • When parasocial interactions go wrong, fans resort to harassment and stalking; reporter Claudia Rosenbaum spoke to detectives in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Threat Management Unit.
  • Remember when tabloids broke the news? Social media decimated the paparazzi industry.
  • One Direction fans are really, really intense re: virtual and physical proximity to their boys, whether they’re writing slash fic or trapping them inside a bakery.
  • We’d do well to remember Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, the Queen of Tejano, murdered by the mentally ill president of her fan club and close friend.
  • And what kind of creep sells a celebrity’s naked photos on the internet?

4. Ferrante Fever

I want to conclude with a story about a different kind of celebrity — the literary celebrity. In October 2016, Claudio Gatti “unmasked” Elena Ferrante, the acclaimed, pseudonymous Italian author. The purported revelation of Ferrante’s true identity led to a flurry of thinkpieces, the majority lambasting Gatti’s misogyny and insensitivity. What Gatti declared investigative journalism seemed, instead, a pointless intrusion. What a world we live in now, where a desire for privacy is perceived by unimaginative men as a marketing gimmick. Now, Ferrante may never write for the public ever again.

At n+1, “Bluebeard” includes a lovely catalog of the physical and psychological spaces acclaimed writers have utilized. Dayna Tortorici makes clear just how much Ferrante has given to her readers and her critics, from interviews to interpretive aids, as well as a variety of perfectly valid reasons for remaining anonymous:

“More than Ferrante herself, her readers have benefited from her choice, spared so much extradiegetic noise. We are as invested in her anonymity—and her autonomy—as she is. It is a compact: she won’t tell us, we won’t ask, and she won’t change her mind and tell us anyway. In exchange, she’ll write books and we’ll read them…It’s difficult to read a man’s attempt to ‘out’ a writer who has said she would stop writing if she were ever identified as anything but an attempt to make her stop writing.”

Ann Friedman wrote a brief piece for New York Magazine, exploring the connection between Kim Kardashian’s terrifying burglary in Paris, France and Gatti’s invasion of Ferrante’s private life. The essay is pointedly tagged “choices“:

“In theory, each woman decides how exposed she’d like to be on social media. In reality, it’s not so simple….Don’t listen to Ferrante’s outers or Kardashian’s haters, who say that women who shy away from publicity are inviting exposure and women court publicity are inviting attack. Listen to women themselves when they declare how much privacy they want.”

Back in the Kitchen: A Reading List About Gender and Food

I’m notoriously grumpy while grocery shopping. Once, my partner and I got into a fight in the Aldi parking lot because one of the eggs in our carton broke. He does his best to keep us supplied in soups and noodles–simple things I can heat up when I’m anxious and depressed — but I find myself yearning for expensive, fresh produce. As much as cooking intimidates me, I eat constantly — popcorn, apples, Toblerone, peanut butter and crackers — whatever I can find. I scry for news of the downtown market that was promised two years ago. I grow hungry and impatient. The world of food seems impenetrable, a place for people with money and time, and I never feel as though I have either. Read more…

On Happiness: A Reading List

March 20 is recognized and celebrated around the world as the International Day of Happiness. From a profile of “the happiest man in the world” to a Brit’s account of mindfulness-obsessed Americans, here are seven reads about happiness.

1. “The Happiness Index.” (Gretchen Legler, Orion Magazine, January 2014)

“Can a country that claims in its brand-new constitution that happiness is more important than money survive, let alone thrive, in a global economy that measures everything by the dollar?” Legler considers the tiny, landlocked Kingdom of Bhutan as a model for change for the rest of the world.

2. “The World’s Happiest Man Wishes You Wouldn’t Call Him That.” (Michael Paterniti, GQ, October 2016)

“When you meet a monk on his mountaintop, it’s like taking a drug called Tonsured Tangerine Euphoria or Rainbow Saffron Dreams. When you see the world through his eyes, everything turns lovely colors, and you suddenly find yourself un-encrusted—free of your baggage—suddenly loving everyone and everything. It’s a self-manufactured rave in your head.” Paterniti travels to Nepal to meet Matthieu Ricard—named the “Happiest Man in the World”—to learn the keys of ultimate happiness. Read more…

A March Madness Reading List, with Music By Céline Dion

Jim Valvano

The idea started last July. Everybody loves buzzer beaters in college basketball—but what if someone were to publicize just those moments on a Twitter feed, and then remix them with a 20-year-old hit Céline Dion song? That, my friends, is a recipe for viral magic. Read more…

Twenty Years of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’: A Reading List

It was me friend Anna who encouraged me to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After my initiation, Anna made sick playlists featuring the bands of The Bronze—the nightclub in Sunnydale, where Buffy took place—and shared the soundtrack to the infamous musical episode “Once More With Feeling” with me. But I don’t remember consciously watching Buffy—it feels like I absorbed it by osmosis, or drank a large, invisible Big Gulp of Whedonverse. Like all of the folks in the essays below, I find Buffy the Vampire Slayer engrossing and nuanced. It’s not perfect, but it is wonderful.

Anna also designed me a t-shirt with THE BRONZE emblazoned on the chest. It’s tight and black with white letters, and I get complimented every time I wear it. It fits perfectly underneath my jean jacket. I wear it when I want to feel prepared, strong, sexy. It’s what Buffy would want.

1. “‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘ is the Greatest Show in the History of Television.” (Rachel Vorona Cote, The Week, March 2017)

Some time ago, I compiled a writing playlist comprised of my favorite instrumental pieces. Propelled by instinct rather than reason, I included “Sacrifice,” the music that concludes the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My husband watched with mild bemusement as I clicked and dragged the file to a place of prominence within the mix. “Are you sure you want to listen to ‘Sacrifice’ while you’re trying to work?” he asked. “You cry every single time.”

2. “Once More With Feeling: A ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ 20th Birthday Roundtable.” (Autostraddle, March 2017)

Autostraddle staffers share their come-to-Buffy moments, with especially insightful commentary about seeing queerness and depression represented on-screen.

3. “The Enduring Legacy of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ 20 Years Later.” (Angelica Jade Bastién, Vulture, March 2017)

One of my favorite aspects of Bastién’s analysis is the reminder that Buffy ends up single. Though you’ll find Buffy aficionados have Many Opinions about her love interests (we can all agree Riley is trash, right?), “This series was daring enough to say that its lead heroine’s romantic journey wasn’t her most important. Adulthood for Buffy was marked…[by] her relationship with her own identity and destiny.” This is an important reminder for women everywhere, I think. We can forge our own way. We don’t have to be at the mercy of the tropes foisted upon us.

4. “If the Loneliness Comes, Beep Me.” (Brian T. Burns, March 2017)

My editor, Mike, tipped me off to this wonderful, touching essay in which writer Burns turns to Buffy to help him process sadness.

5. “How ‘Buffy’ Changed Television For A New Generation.” (Alanna Bennett, BuzzFeed, March 2017)

Scandal, The 100, The Hunger Games, Veronica Mars…so many seminal works of television and film owe their story arcs and character development to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 

Voices from the Last Days of Obamacare: A Reading List

Repeal and replace: Republican candidates used these three words throughout the election cycle almost as an incantation. There was no other option for dealing with Public Enemy #1: Obamacare. When President Trump took office they became a battle cry for Republicans intent on undoing his predecessor’s signature legislation.

But what would repeal and replace look like? Last week, the House Republicans unveiled draft legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act, seven years in the making. The American Health Care Act shares part of the old plan’s name, but not many of its current features. Everything from the insurance mandate to Medicaid expansion is missing from the new plan, and leaders from both sides are unhappy with the half-baked results. Read more…

Alexandra Petri Is The Only Op-Ed Columnist America Needs Right Now

Hamilton Nolan at Deadspin destroyed the entire New York Times opinion page this week after the paper published a limp musing by Frank Bruni on Trump’s well-done steaks. (“When did we turn into such food snobs here in America, land of the free and home of the Bloomin’ Onion?”) Nolan concludes that more than 80 percent of Times columnists aren’t equipped to properly respond to the sheer brokenness of America. I won’t quibble over who Nolan likes and dislikes, as this is not just a problem with the New York Times. I spend many mornings screaming at my radio while NPR tries to lull me back into business as usual with its warm and soothing commuter-friendly tones. I don’t want All Things Considered, I want Some Things Rejected Outright. Read more…

‘This Land’ Was Our Land: A Eulogy for a Groundbreaking Magazine

I first discovered the Oklahoma-based magazine This Land on Twitter through an extraordinary story by Kiera Feldman about a sexual abuse scandal and cover-up at a Tulsa Christian school. Longreads later named “Grace in Broken Arrow” one of the best stories of 2012.

This Land Press, which was founded in 2010 with a seven-figure investment by publisher Vincent LoVoi and editorial leadership from Michael Mason, announced last week it was halting its print operations. CJR called it “one of the most audacious local news experiments of the past decade.” To me, the magazine represented everything that I ever wanted to help celebrate through Longreads: Outstanding reporting from a specific place, with storytelling that resonates around the world. (I grew up nowhere near Tulsa, but I often saw shades of my own hometown, Fresno, California, in the perspectives that This Land shared.)

Read more…

Stand Up For Transgender Equality: A Reading List

I was in the lobby of a theater in Washington, D.C. when I saw the first of the tweets about the Trump administration’s decision to stymie protections for transgender students on the federal level. It wasn’t until the play ended and I was on the Metro home that I had cell service; I began to piece together what exactly had happened. My palms were sweating. I tried to make conversation with my friend, but I felt nauseated and heartsick.

I thought of the transgender and gender non-conforming kids in the youth group where I volunteer and the outspoken, proud, lovely trans kids in our county’s schools. I thought of Gavin Grimm, who’ll stand up against the Gloucester County School Board in front of the Supreme Court on March 28. I thought of how often trans folks have to reduce their stories to make them palatable to cisgender people, smoothing all of our glittering edges into sameness, rather than celebrating our differences, to win over those on the fence.

That night, I felt hopeless and scared. Today, I’m angry. It’s Friday as I finish this post, and the people of Chicago will protest for trans liberation tonight at the corner of Wacker and Wabash. I wish I could be there with them, to celebrate our community’s strength and resilience and to honor the lives of the seven trans women of color murdered in 2017: Mesha Caldwell, 41; Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, 28; JoJo Striker, 23; Keke Collier, 24; Chyna Gibson, 31; Ciara McElveen, 21; and Jaquarrius Holland, 18. Seven women, and it’s only March. Unacceptable and terrifying.

This Women’s History Month, I implore you: educate yourself and stand up for your trans sisters, not only your cis-ters. Stand up for all of your transgender and gender non-conforming siblings, especially our youth, who need advocacy and protection now more than ever.

1. “Trans Rights Already at Risk in Trump’s Bumbling, Bigoted Trainwreck of a Presidency.” (Rachel, Autostraddle, February 2017)

This article on Autostraddle was instrumental in my understanding of what exactly the Department of Justice put forth two weeks ago:

Under Obama, the Justice Department had been appealing a court injunction that prevents trans students nationwide from accessing the bathroom or other facilities consistent with their gender. Under Trump and Sessions, the first order of business was to cease that appeal, and to allow a lower court injunction to harm trans students unopposed.

Unfortunately, this lack of action? reversal? doesn’t bode well for trans rights. Rachel goes on to quote Mara Keisling of the National Center of Transgender Equality:

“While the immediate impact of this initial legal maneuver is limited, it is a frightening sign that the Trump administration is ready to discard its obligation to protect all students… Transgender students are not going away, and it remains the legal and moral duty of schools to support all students.”

Rachel also describes Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ historical support of anti-LGBTQ legislation, which is unsurprising but scary all the same, and explains how Gavin Grimm’s Supreme Court case could affect the administration’s decision to cease the appeal.

Update 3/6/17: The Supreme Court has referred Gavin Grimm’s case to the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Fourth Circuit and will no longer hear his case on March 28. Read more at NYT and BuzzFeed.

2. “Janet Mock: Young People Get Trans Rights. It’s Adults Who Don’t.” (Janet Mock, The New York Times, February 2017)

Janet Mock, transgender author and activist, is the author of two memoirs: Redefining Realness: My Path To Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More and the upcoming Firsts: A Memoir of the Twenties Experience. In this passionate op-ed, Mock does what she does best: Use her personal experiences to advocate for trans youth. Mock contrasts her different school experiences–one with supportive adults, one without.

It’s adults like those in the Trump administration who don’t realize that pitting young people against one another has consequences. It encourages some to be bullies and turns others into sinister objects.

When trans students are told that they cannot use public facilities, it doesn’t only block them from the toilet — it also blocks them from public life. It tells them with every sneer, every blocked door, that we do not want to see them, that they should go hide and that ultimately they do not belong. When schools become hostile environments, students cannot turn to them. Instead they are pushed out. And without an education, it makes it that much more difficult to find a job, support themselves and survive.

Related: “What Trans Youth Need to Hear Right Now, According to Trans Adults.” (Sarah Karlan, BuzzFeed LGBT, March 2017) This isn’t longform, but it’s rare that trans kids have the opportunity to hear from trans adults who are happy and thriving.

3. “Pseudo-Feminist Trolls are Still Trotting Out Tired, Anti-Trans Ideology.” (Larissa Pham, Village Voice, February 2017)

Transphobia isn’t exclusively conservative territory. There are self-proclaimed progressives and feminists whose philosophies harm trans people in subtle and overt ways. Trans-exclusionary radical feminists, better known as TERFs, are obsessed with the false notion that trans women aren’t really women, and, unfortunately, their illogical arguments continue to appeal to the fearful.

4. Telling Our Own Stories.

The following essays and interviews feature the experiences of trans and gender non-conforming artists, authors, activists, students, cartoonists, administrative assistants, analysts and teachers.

“Telling Trans Stories Beyond ‘Born in the Wrong Body.'” (Meredith Talusan, Tiq Milan, Jacob Tobia, and Nico Fonseca, BuzzFeed LGBT, May 2016)

“Transgender Stories: ‘People Think We Wake Up and Decide to Be Trans.'” (Kate Lyons, The Guardian, July 2016)

“My Life as a Trans Woman Teaching High School in a ‘Bathroom Bill’ State.” (Aila Boyd, Broadly, February 2017)

“This is What It’s Like to Be a Trans Kid in a Conservative School.” (Nico Lang, Rolling Stone, March 2017)

“Tomboys Don’t Cry: Edgar Gomez Interviews Ivan Coyote.” (LARB, December 2016)

“Five Trans Cartoonists Respond to Bathroom Hysteria.” (The Nib, March 2017)

Behind the Scenes of Longform Storytelling: A Reading List

That’s me in the photo. June, 2011: my first time interning at a daily newspaper and the first time I read Joan Didion. She blew my mind, of course. Eventually, I started sharing my favorite longform pieces on my personal blog, which led to a variety of opportunities, including my gig here at Longreads. If you’re new around these parts, like I was just a few years ago, the stories below will give you an idea of the strength and skill that goes into creating engaging literary journalism.

Each of the four stories below has been featured on Longreads before, minus the annotations, of course. The interviews with the authors are just as fascinating as the essays they’ve written. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Adrian Chen, and Brian Kevin discuss their research methods, their writing style, and how they choose which details to include and which to let go. There are literally dozens of other Annotation Tuesday stories I could’ve featured — it was hard to pick just three! — so be sure to take a look for yourself on the Nieman Storyboard website.

1. “Annotation Tuesday! Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah and ‘If He Hollers Let Him Go.’” (Elon Green, October 2014)

Part of successful longform storytelling is a seamless blend of the macro and micro. In recounting her journey to Yellow Springs, Ohio — where comic Dave Chappelle lives, where he grew up, in part — Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah does just that. She never interviews Chappelle himself; she interviews several of the people surrounding him, including his mother, scholar Yvonne Seon, and Neal Brannan, co-creator of “Chappelle’s Show.” Ghansah and Elon Green share a fascinating back-and-forth about the impossibility of objectivity, the n-word, and comedy as a weapon.

2. “Annotation Tuesday! Adrian Chen and ‘Unfollow.’” (Katia Savchuk, January 2017)

Tech reporter Adrian Chen — formerly of Gawker, now The New Yorker — wrote a marvelous profile of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was once a devoted member of the Westboro Baptist Church. When Phelps-Roper took over the church’s social media accounts, her life changed. In between hate speech and emojis, she engaged with people of different backgrounds and worldviews. Chen explains that it took a long time for Megan to feel comfortable opening up to him and sharing her story publicly. But when she did open up to Chen, she gave him access to her emails, her journals, even her private messages on the Words With Friends app. They spoke for hours, and the result is a nuanced portrait that demonstrates the nonlinear nature of healing.

3. “Michael Kruse and the Woman Who Disappeared in Her Own Home.” (Paige Williams, August 2012)

I remember reading this piece when it was first published in 2011. I was interning at a daily newspaper and learning about feature writing and reporting for the first time. Michael Kruse and the Tampa Bay Times (previously the St. Petersburg Times) came highly recommended to me, and this story, “A Brevard Woman Disappeared, but Never Left Home” — is a contemporary classic. Journalist and professor Paige Williams dissects the story on an educational basis; Kruse answers her questions and adds commentary.

4. “Annotation Tuesday! (Back to School Edition): Josh Roiland and His ‘Literary Journalism in America’ Syllabus.” (Josh Roiland, August 2015)

During my senior year of undergrad, I embarked on an independent study of longform journalism — reading hundreds of essays, interviewing Ben Montgomery, and analyzing what makes different stories tick. Ready to embark on an independent study of your own? There’s no better place to start than this syllabus — I wish it had been around when I was in school. Roiland, presently an assistant professor with the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine, goes into glorious detail about each of his reading selections.