Search Results for: John-Jeremiah-Sullivan

Michael, Aretha, Beyoncé, and the Black Press

Johnson Publishing Company / Ebony Media Operations, Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Michael Jackson had special relationships with Ebony and Jet. Since their beginnings, the publications, founded by John H. Johnson in Chicago in 1945 and 1951, covered the lives of Black celebrities, professionals, and everyday people alongside a strong political undercurrent.

Jet was a weekly digest memorable to me for the Beauty of the Week centerfolds my uncles and cousins scattered around their homes and the Black music charts printed at the back of each issue. It’s perhaps best known for photographs of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, published in 1955.

The lifestyle monthly Ebony was patterned after Life and Look. In its January 1960 issue, a remarkable story written by William B. Davis profiled several Black Americans living in Russia in the midst of the Cold War, asking, “Who are the Negroes in Russia? How did they get there? How are they treated? Are they really free?” A story on Miles Davis from December 1982 was mostly about his recovery from a stroke, but he also critiqued Rolling Stone. I like that magazine,” he said to Ebony, “but the last time I saw it, it had all white guys in it. How about Kool and the Gang? Earth, Wind, and Fire? They should write more about people like that.”

Throughout Michael’s 40 years in show business, Ebony published stories such as “The Michael Jackson Nobody Knows,” on important career milestones. In an interview from 1987, about the release of Bad, he utters a simple but heavy sentence: “I don’t remember not performing.” These stories humanize Michael and try to turn the narrative away from the spectacle and speculation growing around him. The coverage would become strategic when he faced allegations of sexual misconduct with minors. John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote about discovering this phenomenon in his essay “Michael”:

It’s fascinating to read the interviews he gave to Ebony and Jet over the past thirty years. I confess myself disoriented by them, as a white person. During whole stretches of years when the big media were reporting endlessly on his bizarreness and reclusiveness, he was every so often granting these intimate and illuminating sit-downs to those magazines, never forgetting to remind them that he trusted only them, would speak only to them. The articles make me realize that about the only Michael Jackson I’ve ever known, personality-wise, is a Michael Jackson who’s defending himself against white people who are passive-aggressively accusing him of child molestation. He spoke differently to black people, was more at ease. The language and grain of detail are different.

What a pleasure to find him listening to early ‘writing version demos of his own compositions and saying, ‘Listen to that, that’s at home, Janet, Randy, me…You’re hearing four basses on there…’

* * *

Since Beyoncé’s fourth Vogue cover was announced, I’ve been thinking about how the Black press has always been where Black artists could have their work spoken about with integrity. Being Black could be simple matter of fact there, unencumbered by duty of explanation or self-defense. The burden of racism wasn’t the centerpiece or engine of every story. The humanity of subjects was not flattened, defanged, or made into spectacular monstrosity. Beyoncé hasn’t given a traditional magazine interview since 2013, presumably to get around some of these mainstream media tendencies. She has produced an increasingly complex body of visual, sound, and performance art, creating her own candid language. It made sense that the Vogue team would allow her “unprecedented control” of the editorial as reports claimed. The reports also let us know that for the first time in the magazine’s history, a Black photographer, Tyler Mitchell, would shoot its cover.

When the cover was revealed, however, editor-in-chief Anna Wintour told “Business of Fashion” that it was the Vogue team who’d been in control creatively. It had been their idea to initiate such a sea change for the magazine. Wintour, after all, was who’d made André Leon Talley the magazine’s first Black creative director in 1988. Writing about his tenure for the Washington Post, Talley said he “sounded no bullhorn over diversity.” Cover photography had been “entirely in the hands of others.” He takes a somewhat defensive position, but really, he doesn’t need to. Not even one Black photographer captivated the Vogue team enough in more than one hundred years. How could that have been mere oversight?

* * *


Condé Nast

In Mitchell’s finest image, Beyoncé is seated in a Southern Gothic tableau, in front of a plain white sheet, wearing a bridal gown and a crown of real flowers. It could be a still from Lemonade. I see the stare of a woman in refusal, though I’m not sure of what. Beyoncé’s artistry and vivacious attention to her own life is pregnant with history and memory — she’s at an apex of a long line of Black women in American entertainment. Dorothy Dandridge, whose singing voice was dubbed over in Carmen Jones. Lena Horne, whose work in musicals was sometimes deleted when the films screened in the South. Lauryn Hill, who disappeared from the spotlight at the height of her fame. The weight of all that is there, softly referenced in the images, directly in the cover story. But the critic Robin Givhan found an opaque, disappointing muteness in the cover image. “Nothing is divulged,” she wrote.

I think a lot about how journalists called Aretha Franklin a difficult person to interview. “Whatever you learn from Aretha when you sit down and talk to her, you’ve got to watch her onstage if you really want to know what she thinks and feels and agonizes about,” Ed Bradley said after speaking with her in 1990. In Respect, biographer David Ritz documented numerous times Franklin arranged interviews with Jet as counterpoint to an unfavorable report in another outlet.

Beyoncé’s Vogue photos are gorgeous, but I wonder what the editorial would have looked like if she’d truly trusted the publication’s creative team to support her. There’s still much to be desired in the way Black subjects, even the most distinguished and well-known, are portrayed in the mainstream. I’m fatigued by the hollow kind of diversity that tokenizes and the endless stories about racism and racial trauma. If I never again hear about how a Black or brown person has “taught” a white person something of moral value, I’d be pleased. In the not-so-distant past, glossies like Ebony, Jet, Vibe, The Source, and weekly papers like the Michigan Chronicle, and the Chicago Defender existed all at once. They had cachet and resources, and, importantly, a cauldron of Black editors and photographers and stylists who’d come up through the ranks. They created generative, textured counterpoints to mainstream narratives, and their teams were personally and institutionally invested in the growth, preservation, and rigorous interpretation of Black culture.

For better and for worse, and on the whole, they were trusted — to not denigrate, degrade, diminish, or exclude their subjects. To light them beautifully, to see, hear, and listen.

Ebony, Vibe, Essence and many local newspapers such as the Michigan Chronicle, the Chicago Defender, the St. Louis American and the Tri-State Defender are still publishing. Much of the archives of Ebony, Jet, and Negro Digest are available digitally via Google Books. The Obsidian Collection is digitizing the archive of many legacy Black newspapers. Digital-first publications such as CASSIUSOkayplayer, the Grio, and the Root do excellent work. But the media landscape has contracted and consolidated. Some Black outlets have shut down. Many of those that remain are unable to publish with the cadence they once did. Much Black talent is scattered about. Diversity is universally in, at least in this moment. It has become a business imperative for mainstream publications. That’s a win and a progression. But it has come with a cost.

Derivative Sport: The Journalistic Legacy of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace in New York City's East Village, circa 2002. (Janette Beckman/Redferns)

By Josh Roiland

Longreads | December 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)

At a hip Manhattan book launch for John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2011 essay collection Pulphead, David Rees, the event’s emcee, asked the two-time National Magazine Award winner, “So John…are you the next David Foster Wallace?” The exchange is startling for its absurdity, and Sullivan shakes his head in disbelief before finally answering, “No, that’s—I’m embarrassed by that.” But the comparison has attached itself to Sullivan and a host of other young literary journalists whom critics have noted bear resemblance to Wallace in style, subject matter, and voice.

When Leslie Jamison published The Empathy Exams, her 2014 collection of essays and journalism, a Slate review said “her writing often recalls the work of David Foster Wallace.” Similarly, when Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life appeared a year earlier, a review in the L.A. Review of Books proclaimed: “If Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace had a love child, I thought, Michelle Orange would be it.”

Wallace was, himself, a three-time finalist for the National Magazine Award, winning once, in 2001; yet he compulsively identified himself as “not a journalist” both in his interactions with sources and reflexively as a character in his own stories. Nonetheless, he casts a long shadow in the world of literary journalism—a genre of nonfiction writing that adheres to all the reportorial and truth-telling covenants of traditional journalism, while employing rhetorical and storytelling techniques more commonly associated with fiction. To give better shape to that penumbra of influence, I spoke with Sullivan, Jamison, and Orange, along with Maria Bustillos, Jeff Sharlet, Joel Lovell, and Colin Harrison about Wallace’s impact on today’s narrative nonfiction writers. They spoke about comparisons to Wallace, what they love (and hate) about his work, what it was like to edit him, their favorite stories, posthumous controversies, and his influence and legacy.

Joel Lovell only worked with Wallace on one brief essay. Despite that singular experience, Lovell’s editorial time at Harper’s and elsewhere in the 1990s and 2000s put him in great position to witness Wallace’s rising status in the world of magazine journalism. He was unequivocal when I asked him which nonfiction writer today most reminds him of Wallace.

Joel Lovell: The clear descendant is John Jeremiah Sullivan, of course. For all sorts of reasons (the ability to move authoritatively between high and low culture and diction; the freakishly perceptive humor on the page) but mostly just because there’s no one else writing narrative nonfiction or essays right now whose brain is so flexible and powerful, and whose brainpower is so evident, sentence by sentence, in the way that Wallace’s was. No one who’s read so widely and deeply and can therefore “read” American culture (literature, television, music) so incisively. No one who can make language come alive in quite the same way. He’s an undeniable linguistic genius, like Dave, who happens to enjoy exercising that genius through magazine journalism. Read more…

John Jeremiah Sullivan Discovers the Secret of the Quince

The quinces were weird. We didn’t know what to make of them, figuratively or literally. Did people eat them? They could have come from space. In fact on Sesame Street there used to be a skit that involved two aliens. They couldn’t reach the fruit on their planet’s fruit trees. One alien was too short, the other couldn’t bend its arms. When that came on I would glance outside at our quince bush. Extraterrestrial nectarines: that’s what they looked like. Beautiful, I realize now. Like a cross between a lemon and pear. (They symbolize fertility.) In the street-view picture, the quince bush was still there, but in the satellite view, taken five years later, you can see it’s been mowed to the ground. In the grass where it was there’s a pale, almost perfect circle.

I hadn’t thought of the quince bush for a couple of decades until I visited an old friend in LA last year, one I’d kept in contact with but hadn’t seen in several years. I’d flown into town that afternoon and was supposed to leave at dawn—it was one of those situations where it made no sense to go to sleep. You’d just be torturing yourself. Kevin West: a friend from college. We were in his apartment in Koreatown, a nice pad with a view of the city lights, though noticeably smaller than his old place in Laurel Canyon. He’d recently downsized his life. He had a bottle of good rye whiskey and some olives. At one point he was explaining to me that all modern fruit preserving, in cans and jars, descends from a discovery the Romans made—that if you cooked the otherwise inedible quince in honey and sealed it in jars, it became sweet and made excellent jam. Quince in honey, as a preserve, spread all over the world. The Portuguese called it marmelada. Marmalade.

John Jeremiah Sullivan, in Lucky Peach (via Medium), on the art of canning. Read more stories from Sullivan in the Longreads Archive.

Photo: grongar, Flickr

Stories that Magazine Editors Are Afraid Of

“It’s probably worth saying that there are editors at all sorts of magazines (myself included) who know they should never assign a story on a certain kind of subject—a Phish tour, say, or Mitt Romney, or what’s up with Cuba?—and yet they do so despite their better judgment. A writer tells you he or she is interested, you convince yourself that it’s all going to work out despite the pre-digested conclusions or the limited access or the fact that what you’re talking about is a generality rather than a specific idea. And it never, ever does, unless something remarkable and unexpected happens in the reporting or the writer brings some stunning originality to it. And these things work in a kind of horrible tandem—the lack of interesting subject matter inspiring the writer to scat out thicker and thicker layers of word jazz—resulting in so many bad magazine stories.”

Joel Lovell (formerly GQ, now The New York Times Magazine), in conversation with John Jeremiah Sullivan on how they worked together—specifically on this story. Read more from GQ in the Longreads Archive.


Photo: thomasleuthard, Flickr

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Reading List: Amazing People for Desperate Times

Emily Perper is a word-writing human working at a small publishing company. She blogs about her favorite longreads at Diet Coker.

I have a group of comedian friends; we go bowling every Wednesday and contribute to a magazine called The Annual. In the wake of recent personal misfortune, they’ve been a refuge for me. After spending time with them, I feel inspired. I listen to comedy podcasts, commit myself to books I haven’t quite finished, and make furtive jots in my journal.

Here are four pieces about people I don’t know who do the same thing.

“Tig Notaro And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Yet Somehow Completely Amazing Year.” (Sandra Allen, Buzzfeed, August 2013)

What an utter badass. I’m all about women, and women in comedy, and women in comedy getting the recognition they deserve. Tig had cancer and a breakup and a death in the family and wow, wow, wow, she leads this life of grace and humor. She has a dozen projects going. What a human.

“Now We Are Five.” (David Sedaris, The New Yorker, October 2013)

Weirdly, gay memoirists are my go-to after breakups (by which I mean Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris). My favorite Sedaris essays are about his family. Here, Sedaris forgoes his typical absurdism in favor of a more reflective piece on the recent suicide of his sister, Tiffany. He is funny and tender.

“The Rumpus Interview With John Jeremiah Sullivan.” (Greg Gerke, The Rumpus, April 2012)

I am equal parts inspired and intimidated (actually, far far far more intimidated) by JJS. He’s the “southern editor” for the Paris Review. Is that even a real position? I think the Paris Review invented it just for him, because he was too important to not have on staff. Think about it.

“Tavi Gevinson, Rookie.” (Duane Fernandez, Left Field Project, September 2013)

Is this a “longread?” No, and I don’t care. Tavi is incredibly inspiring, not just because of her youth, but because she Makes Things Happen for herself. She is artistic and energetic and makes me want to Make Things.


Photo: CleftClips

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Peter Smith's Top 5 Longreads of 2011

Peter Smith has written about food and science for GOOD, Wired, and Gastronomica. He’s based in Maine, and, in 2011, he covered pickle juice, patented sandwiches, and the last sardine cannery in North America. This is his first attempt at Top Five Longreads.    


Here are my (somewhat arbitrarily selected) #longreads that, er, explore unexpected, underexplored, and purposely obfuscated aspects of the world—sometimes involving the curious things we put in our mouths. 


1. “The Mystery of the Canadian Whiskey Fungus,” Adam Rogers, Wired

Mycology hardly gets the kind of attention we reserve for charismatic megafauna—whales and wolves and wooly mammoths—but Adam Rogers explains how a conspicuous black growth in distillery in Lakeshore,  Ontario led to the discovery of a previously undiscovered fungal microparadise.

2. “Here Be Monsters,” Michael Finkel, GQ 

I read very few stories on my phone, but I started reading this adventure story and could not put it down. Michael Finkel tells the tale of three boys who make a drunken escape off a tiny, isolated island and end up lost at sea, starving and trying to catch fish with the innards of their boat’s engine.

3. “Planet in a Bottle,” Christopher Turner, Cabinet 

Diets are a dime a dozen—the Atkins Diet, the Blood Type Diet, the More-of-Jesus-Less-of-Me Diet, the Paleo Diet—but the CRON-diet was not one that I had ever even heard about. Christopher Turner delves into its origins in the failed experiment in the Arizona desert known as Biosphere.

4. “India’s Vanishing Vultures,” Meera Subramanian, The Virginia Quarterly Review

Subramanian’s essay on the devastating unintended consequences of a veterinary drug on India’s vultures, along with one man’s efforts to restore the birds with “vulture restaurants,” elicits a rare enthusiasm for both environmental toxicology and the scavenging creatures who eat the dead.

5. “Unnamed Caves,” John Jeremiah Sullivan, The Paris Review

Sullivan’s most recent collection—as Wells Tower put it recently—makes you want to barf with envy. After reading this extensively researched story about spelunking in Tennessee, wherein the author tries to find the meaning of 6,000-year old cave paintings, I’ll admit, I also had to pick my jaw up off the floor. (It’s only excerpted online; you’ll have to buy the paperback.)


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A. N. Devers' Top 5 Bathtub Longreads of 2011

A. N. Devers‘ work has appeared online in Lapham’s Quarterly, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and in other publications.  Her most recent essay, about poet Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House in Carmel, California, is in the Winter 2011 issue of Tin House. She is the founder and editor of Writers’ Houses, a website dedicated to literary pilgrimage.


Maghag (n.): 1. A compulsive reader and hoarder of periodicals and magazines to a magnitude that endangers the well-being of the hag’s housekeeping ability, family relationships, and punctuality. Identified by a pruney skin that develops from spending an inordinate amount of time in the bathtub 2. Writer and procrastinator known as A. N. Devers.


1. I always go for Scientology exposes. I’m cheap that way. “The Apostate” by Lawrence Wright for The New Yorker, with its heroic fact-checking effort, is so Xenu-shattering that it inspired a rebuttal from the Church of Scientology in the form of a poor-executed satire of The New Yorker.

2. My fandom of Paul Collins goes back a ways. His work exposes my periodical-weeding inability. If you came over to my apartment and demanded some Paul Collins, I’d be able to run to dusty stacks and the file cabinet and deliver a dozen essays of awesome. So I’m not surprised that his piece about the disappearance of child-writer Barbara Follett in the Lapham’s Quarterly Celebrity issue is perfectly constructed story of intrigue and wonderment, mystery and disturbia.

3. Anything I can say about Hungarian industrial designer and ceramicist Eva Zeisel’s Prison Memoir (A Public Space, issue 14) of being arrested in Stalinist Russia doesn’t do her charm and intellect justice. Just listen to this voice: “He put a number in front of my chest and I thought, This will make me look like those pictures of criminals one sees, Wanted for Murder. Then they took me to be fingerprinted, one finger rolled in the ink after the other, and again I thought, It’s like the movies. Again, we walked through many courtyards and the funny thing was that I did not see anybody. It was all empty. Finally, I was in my cell, and I still did not know what it was all about.”

4. Once upon a time, I was a professional archaeologist. Freelance survey and excavation work paid some of my bills my last year of college and my first couple of years out of school. I was waitlisted for a PhD to study caves with a famous spelunking archaeologist at Washington University and had determined if I didn’t get in I’d go a different route. By then I realized that archaeology and literature have more in common than people realize—and I love them for the same reasons. They are both, I believe, about our need to seek and excavate truth. But archaeologists, like many breeds of scientist, aren’t natural storytellers, and I am always glad when a writer happens upon archaeology and finds a way to explore the people and projects of a fascinating field. John Jeremiah Sullivan does this in his wonderful Paris Review essay, “Unnamed Caves” (purchase req.), and it’s now in his excellent collection, Pulphead. Go spelunking with him. Here’s a bonus: another favorite writer of mine, Elif Batuman, dug into Turkish archaeology in her essay, The Sanctuary” for The New Yorker (sub. required). She visits the world’s oldest temple and deftly unravels its history and mythology.

5. I would be lying by omission if I didn’t admit to reading a ton of celebrity dish in the tub. I think my favorite this year was “Lowe, Actually,” the excerpt in Vanity Fair of Rob Lowe’s memoir. I don’t really have a thing for Rob Lowe. Never have. (For instance, I loved West Wing but for the overuse of pancake makeup on Lowe’s face.) But I spent 6th grade idolizing S. E. Hinton for The Outsiders. And I was hooked again when I finally got to see the movie. So, yes, Rob Lowe had me at his mention of Ponyboy. Stay gold, y’all. 


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Mike Dang: My Top 5 Longreads of 2011

Mike Dang is editor of Bundle and managing editor for Longreads. See his longreads page here.


I’ve read a lot of great longreads this year, but I know that a longread is truly special when I become its biggest cheerleader. I’ll casually slip the story into conversations, teasing out some of its best bits to wheedle the person into reading it later on his or her own. Here are five of those stories:


“Windeye.” Brian Evenson, PEN America

Although this story wasn’t published in 2011, it was one of my favorites from the 2011 Pen/O. Henry Prize winners published in an anthology earlier this spring. The set up is terrific:

“Something wrong with the window,” he said. “Or not the window exactly but the number of windows.” She was smiling, waiting. “The problem is the number of windows. There’s one more window on the outside than on the inside.” He covered his mouth with his hand.

“Chat History.” Rebecca Armendariz, GOOD

Most of our casual conversations occur over e-mail threads or instant messenger, rather than the telephone. This happens so frequently that we rarely go back to read those threads and chats. In this heartbreaking longread, a woman remembers a relationship through a series of chats archived in her Gmail inbox. It compelled me to go through my own archives.

“Getting Bin Laden,” Nicholas Schmidle, The New Yorker

Already on many people’s Top 5 lists, this is one of the most exciting stories I’ve read. Schmidle was able to make you feel like you are with the 23 Navy SEALs who were on the ground in Abbottabad the night we got Bin Laden, even though he was only able to piece the story together by interviewing a number of people directly involved in the raid. I love how he focused on all the minute details — including a bit where the White House ordered sandwich platters from Costco before turning the Situation Room into a war room.

When Irish Eyes Are Crying.” Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair

I write about money for a living, so I read everything about the financial crisis. Michael Lewis is one of the best financial journalists of our time, and he has pointed out time and again how terrible countries and its people can be with money (the U.S. in “The Big Short,” Iceland in a V.F. longread published in April 2009, and Greece in a V.F. longread published in Oct. 2010). Lewis continues his “financial disaster tourism” with Ireland this year, and, once again, leaves us shaking our heads.

“Mister Lytle: An Essay.” John Jeremiah Sullivan, Paris Review

I know. JJS is clearly the Ryan Gosling of longreads this year. This essay was published last fall, but I didn’t get a chance to read it until I picked up Sullivan’s collections of essays, Pulphead. Sullivan recalls a time when he served as a houseboy for Andrew Lytle, a revered Southern author. The way Sullivan unfolds his story is just: magical. Other readers agree — the essay won a National Magazine Award in May.


“The Fresh Air Interview: Jay-Z ‘Decoded.’” Terry Gross, Fresh Air

The great thing about radio longreads — otherwise known as #audiofiles — is that producers get some poor intern to transcribe the entire broadcast so it doubles as a longread. I love the part where Terry and Jay-Z discuss the story behind “99 Problems” — really just the idea that Terry sat down to listen to Jay-Z’s records for this interview is perfect.


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Writer David Hill: My Top 5 Longreads of 2011

David Hill writes Fading the Vig for McSweeney’s, writes about basketball for Negative Dunkalectics, writes sketch comedy for The Charlies, and starting next month will write a monthly column for Grantland. He is on Twitter at @davehill77.


“Too Much Information,” John Jeremiah Sullivan, GQ

John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote many notable things in 2011. I chose to highlight this review of The Pale King for two reasons. First because everyone else has recommended the Disneyland story and the story about his house. Second because it is actually a nice bit of writing and it is fascinating in the way that it hits home how much David Foster Wallace has left an impact on a generation of writers, John Jeremiah Sullivan included. An impact that I think is perhaps both good and bad, but one that the jury will likely be out on for a long time. 

“The Garden of Good and Evil,” Katie Baker, Grantland

I have no idea if it is possible to love this piece as much as I do if you don’t love the Knicks. I mean really love the Knicks, as in cried after Game 5 of the 1999 NBA Finals love the Knicks. What I do know is that Katie Baker loves the Knicks the way I love the Knicks and this post mortem on this past season was, in my mind, a fitting and touching tribute to the team I invested far too much emotional energy and actual time this year. 

“The Art of the Body Shot,” Chris Jones, Grantland

Chris Jones is the best writer in the game right now hands down. Anything he writes is worthy of a list like this. This particular piece, however, is worth your time even if you aren’t much of a boxing fan. I read a lot of boxing writing this year—a lot. This was the single standout piece of writing on boxing I read all year. It made me feel like maybe boxing has life in it still yet, and if so perhaps writers like Chris Jones have more time to carry on a tradition of beautiful boxing prose that was handed to them by writers like James Baldwin and Norman Mailer. If so I have no doubt that Chris Jones won’t let them down.  

“In the Wake of Protest: One Woman’s Attempt to Unionize Amazon,” Vanessa Veselka, The Atlantic

I can tell you from first-hand experience as a union organizer that this piece accurately captures the utter hopelessness, intense fear, and emotional overload that workers who try to organize unions in America today must deal with. This story was heartbreaking but also righteous and in the end I feel like she arrives at exactly the right conclusions. It isn’t just about how a generation of workers who are self-absorbed and overly concerned about their self expression are an obstacle to class consciousness. It also makes the point that whether companies like Amazon are anti-union or not is irrelevant. Companies like Amazon that fight unions do so because they are essentially anti-worker and for me at least there is no nuance or complexity to it, it is just that simple.  

“Manhattan in Middle Age,” Elizabeth Gumport, This Recording

I discovered Elizabeth Gumport’s writing this year through a mutual friend and since have read everything she has written. She’s a wonderfully talented writer and thinker who I hope to see even more from in 2012. In this piece she looks at the life of Dawn Powell in New York City and talks about growing old in a city surrounded by the young. It is a subject I’ve thought about and talked about a lot this year as I adjust to my life as a father and try to walk in two worlds at once—that of my youth and that of my future—all the while knowing that eventually I will have to step completely over into one at the expense of the other. 


“The Day Never Ended,” Everyone, Free Darko

Not really a longread but worth noting on this list of the best of 2011. This was the last post on Free Darko, a never-ending parade of goodbyes and thank yous and memories and glass-raising praise for the blog that was the inspiration for so many good things and the grandfather of so many great things yet to come. How we write, how we write about sports, how we think about sports, the way we write and communicate and build community on the Internet—for myself and I’d guess many other people Free Darko made a singular transformational impact. 


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New York Times Writer Jenna Wortham: My Top Longreads of 2011

Jenna Wortham is a technology reporter at The New York Times. In her spare time she makes zines and stalks former America’s Next Top Model contestants in Brooklyn. She can be found on Twitter and Tumblr.


SO many of my favorites have already been called out—Mindy Kaling’s “Flick Chicks,” Dan P. Lee’s “Travis the Menace” and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s everything, plus Doree flagged that amazing Kolker piece and Michelle laid claim to Paul Ford’s staggering essay on IVF. But these are the stories that I sent to my Kindle and the links that recurred with the most frequency in my drafts/Gchats folders on Gmail, so I think it’s safe to say that they are my top picks of 2011.


• Ashlee Vance, “This Tech Bubble is Different.” (Businessweek, April 14, 2011)

A cutting, high-level look at the current boomlet in the tech biz—the kind that makes you kick yourself till the end for not being smart enough to have pitched it yourself. Ashlee takes a step back from the funding frenzy, sky-high valuations and feverish IPO rumors to examine the current ad-think consuming the tech world. He asks, what if instead of focusing on getting people to click on ads, buy group coupons and digital goods for their virtual farms, our engineers and entrepreneurs were trying to solve big problems in health and science?

• Lev Grossman, “The Boy Who Lived Forever.” (Time, July 7, 2011) 

I adored this piece because it shed light on a very particular corner of the Web—fanfic—without falling into the clichéd trap of portraying the more obscure recesses of the Internet as a place only inhabited by cr33p3rs and neckbeards. Instead, Lev lightly celebrates the creativity of the subculture and the communities and alternative realities people craft around their favorite characters and books.

• Jessica Pressler, “A Holly Golightly for the Stripper-Embezzlement Age.” (New York Magazine, Sept 18, 2011)

I couldn’t get enough of the vivid, and at times lurid, details in this profile of Diane Passage, Ken Starr’s fourth wife. I mean, this phrase alone: “when she laughs, her grapefruit-tree physique bounces merrily,” hooked me, line and sinker. Plus who doesn’t love a sordid glimpse into an underbelly, especially one in New York? The sharp observations and imagery from the first few grafs make you feel like a fly on the wall of a party you didn’t want to go to in the first place but can’t wait to see how it all shakes out.

• David Kushner, “Murder by Text.” (Vanity Fair, November 27, 2011)

A heartbreaking read about the gruesome murder of a 18-year-old girl named Kim Proctor and the two teenaged boys who killed her and then bragged about it on World of Warcraft, which ultimately led to their arrest. Kusher smartly weaves the role of technology and the concept of (im)permanence online into the piece for a compelling narrative.

• Jose Antonio Vargas, “My Life As an Undocumented Immigrant.” (The New York Times, June 22, 2011)

I thought this was one of the most important pieces published this year, along with “The Life of Illegal Immigrant Farmers,” for giving the touchy subject of immigration a living, breathing human face. I read this stunning graf at least a half dozen times:

“And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.”

Honorable Mention:

While I was waiting for my copy of Sullivan’s Pulphead to be delivered, I stumbled across the work of Matt Bell, and immediately devoured two of his Kindle shorts—“A Tree or a Person or a Wall” and “A Long Walk, With Only Chalk to Mark the Way” and could not put them down. For such a stark, minimalist writer, his pieces are so evocative and rich with imagery that its hard not to be sucked into them almost immediately.

I also thought that this year brought out some hilarious and clever writing that touched on the way we consume and use technology and how it’s shaping our interactions, culture and lives.

Here’s a quick n’ dirty rundown of a few faves:

• Katie Heaney, “Reading Between the Texts” (The Hairpin, June 16, 2011)

• Leigh Alexander, “Five Emotions Invented By The Internet” (Thought

Catalog, January 12, 2011)

• Frank Smith, “Will the Real Frank Smith Please Stand Up” (The Morning

News, March 25, 2011)

Clive Thompson, “On Secret Messages in the Digital Age” (Wired

magazine, Jan 31, 2011)

Jonah Lehrer, “How Friends Ruin Memory: The Social Conformity Effect.”

(, October 2011)


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