In the essay “Freedom Is Overrated,” the theologian and scholar Sancrucensis contrasts the humanism of Jonathan Franzen with that of David Foster Wallace. A transcendentally beautiful and heartbreaking meditation on self and other.
I’ve enjoyed a number of essays from The American Conservative this year, but my favorite may have been Mike Lofgren’s “Revolt Of The Rich”. It’s a blistering reproof of our moneyed classes and their disconnect from the historic aspirations of our country.
The tagline of Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, is “Biased and Balanced.” An earlier incarnation of the Dish bore another, equally good: “Of No Party Or Clique.” I consider Sullivan an indispensable companion, not least because his views so often diverge from my own. I can’t choose just one entry from his heady, rapid-fire mix of opinion, reporting, photographs, jokes, poems, ideas. But Sullivan’s great heart, his compassion and intellect, are a salutary test of my own convictions most every day.
The scholar Aaron Bady exposes the fatal weaknesses in the arguments of those promoting “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, in a resoundingly persuasive and passionate essay in Inside Higher Ed. Absolutely crucial reading for anyone remotely interested in the academy.
Mike Konczal, known on Twitter as @rortybomb, led a breathtaking debate on debt relief at the Boston Review that blew my wiglet sky-high. In the lead essay, Konczal makes an ironclad case that a strong social safety net, including debt relief, is crucial to the economic health of the country. Splendid, limpidly clear, beautifully reasoned.
It’s scarcely too much to say that The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson single-handedly rescued my sanity from the maelstrom of this year’s election. I pretty much hop on Twitter and start banging out exclamation points every time she posts, but her recent column on the public confrontation of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia by a gay Princeton University student will serve as well as any to demonstrate her unwavering clear-mindedness, her sensitivity, fairness and brilliance.
The power of Allison Benedikt’s “Life After Zionist Summer Camp” (The Awl) derives from the purity of its point of view, which is that of one person’s lived experience, minutely and honestly detailed. Benedikt swings gracefully between humor and searing candor in this account of her growing ambivalence toward the religious, political and cultural institutions she’d grown up taking for granted. It’s a high-wire act of great elegance and sensitivity that will stay with me for a long time to come.
In “The Fire This Time” (Los Angeles Review of Books) Reza Aslan likewise makes a compelling case in opposition to conventional wisdom. I thought it by far the best of the 9/11 pieces that came out on the 10th anniversary of the catastrophe.
“American Marvel” (GQ), Edith Zimmerman’s profile of Chris Evans, the star of Captain America, upends everything one is accustomed to think about “movie stars” and celebrity, plus she blasts many assumptions about popular writing—and about reporters describing the world we inhabit—to absolute smithereens. Flesh-and-blood people suddenly appear on the screen where one had been expecting a cartoon. Steven Mikulan’s “Dr. Drew Feels Your Pain” (Los Angeles Magazine), by contrast, conjures a nuanced portrait out of the media fun-house mirror the old-fashioned way, via the painstaking layering up of detail through long and patient, keen observation. It has a similar payoff to the Zimmerman piece, in that you’re seeing a real world spring by magic out of the Potemkin one.
Spencer Soper’s Morning Call exposé of the sweatshop conditions at Amazon’s Allentown, Pa., warehouse came just as the Occupy movement was beginning to take hold. The disparity between the friendly face that Amazon crafts for public view and the abject brutality with which they treated their employees in Allentown demonstrated perfectly and at just the right time the terrible cost of profit-obsessed corporatism (and bargain-obsessed consumerism).
At Inside Higher Education, Steve Kolowich interviews Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a professor of media studies at Pomona College, regarding the coming digital revolution in academic research and publishing. Sounds a little dry, maybe, but check it out. Fitzpatrick and her forward-thinking colleagues have identified, and are carefully nurturing, the phoenix egg from which a new and improved academy is already beginning to hatch.
Fiction: George Saunders, Tenth of December (The New Yorker): best fiction of any length I read all year.
Humor: David Roth, Brief Interviews with Hideous Football Players (The Awl), a comic tour de force that fans of David Foster Wallace will particularly enjoy.
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.
Maria Popova is the founder and editor in chief of Brain Pickings, a writer for Wired UK, Design Observer, and The Atlantic, among others, and an MIT Futures of Entertainment fellow, spending far, far too much time curating the web’s interestingness as @brainpicker.
I’ve always found reading, writing, and thinking to be so tightly interwoven that, when done correctly, they become indistinguishable from one another. Like architecting your life and your social circle, architecting your mind’s life is an exercise in immersing yourself in an eclectic mix of viewpoints and directions of thought. In that way, longform is like the most intense of friendships, where the time dedication and the active choice to show up far eclipse the noncommittal acquaintanceship of soundbite culture. A healthy longform diet must thus include something that breaks your heart, something that gives you hope, something by someone you find a little self-righteous, something by someone with whom you’re a little bit in love—and, ideally, the inability to fully tell which is which. With this in mind, here are the five finest pieces I laid eyes and neurons on this year, which did for me all of the above, and then some.
A bittersweet story about Samuel Clemens, but really about something profoundly and universally human: love, timing, and the often tragic misalignment of the two. And in that story lies a subtle reminder that unless we pursue the heart’s desire with complete clarity of purpose and intention, we’re left forever playing out those could’ve-beens, as Twain did, in our dreams.
“Thus it was Sam’s stubbornness that foreclosed any further encounter with Laura Wright. Yet they did meet, time and again, over the years, in Clemens’ dreams. And dreams, Samuel Clemens came to believe, were as real as anything in the waking world.”
As both a marginalia obsessive and a hopeless bibliophile torn between the love of books and the mesmerism of the web, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of books—or, more accurately, about the function books have traditionally served as a medium for arguing and teasing out ideas of significance and cultural gravity. Hardly anyone fuses a bibliophile’s profound respect for books with a designer’s sensitivity to the reading experience and a digital entrepreneur’s visionary bravery more fluidly, articulately, and thoughtfully than Craig Mod.
“Manifested properly, each new person who participates in the production of digital marginalia changes the reading experience of that book for the next person. Analog marginalia doesn’t know other analog marginalia. Digital marginalia is a collective conversation, cumulative stratum.”
Gopnik is one of my favorite nonfiction authors working today. And this is no ordinary book review of what eventually became my favorite history book of 2011—it paints a riveting connect-the-dots portrait of information’s history and future through such fascinating and surprisingly related subjects as African drum languages, the Morse Code, Marshall McLuhan, and Google.
“Yet surely having something wrapped right around your mind is different from having your mind wrapped tightly around something. What we live in is not the age of the extended mind but the age of the inverted self. The things that have usually lived in the darker recesses or mad corners of our mind—sexual obsessions and conspiracy theories, paranoid fixations and fetishes—are now out there: you click once and you can read about the Kennedy autopsy or the Nazi salute or hog-tied Swedish flight attendants. But things that were once external and subject to the social rules of caution and embarrassment—above all, our interactions with other people—are now easily internalized, made to feel like mere workings of the id left on its own.”
There is something magnificent and magical that happens when we open ourselves up to the poetry of possibility—of “overlookedness,” if you will. (Lesson #1.)
“The saltbox itself as an object is unremarkable. Alone, it communicates nothing. Says nothing about its role. Its intention. Its history as a gift born out of a romance between my maternal grandparents. Says nothing of its possibilities.
But add people, and it becomes a central iterative device. The license to change, to iterate, to test, to add, to make, to make over, to create (clearly, with food). It gives license and latitude to stray from what has been written (recipes) for those too shy to do. Therefore, it gives strength. It gives iterative powers to those not comfortable with version control. With its subtlety comes comfort in change.
One might say the saltbox, and access to it, is magic.”
Picking just one of Maria Bustillos’ many brilliant pieces was excruciating, but this meditation on the future of authorship, content curation, and intellectual innovation is simply exquisite, and tickles my own restlessness about the changing currencies and sandboxes of authorship in the age of information overload.
“All these elements—the abandonment of ‘point of view,’ the willingness to consider the present with the same urgency as the past, the borrowing ‘of wit or wisdom from any man who is capable of lending us either,’ the desire to understand the mechanisms by which we are made to understand—are cornerstones of intellectual innovation in the Internet age. In particular, the liberation from ‘authorship’ (brought about by the emergence of a ‘hive mind’) is starting to have immediate implications that few beside McLuhan foresaw. His work represents a synthesis of the main precepts of New Criticism with what we have come to call cultural criticism and/or media theory.”
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.
1. “The Genius of Taylor Swift’s Girlfriend Collection.” (Anne Helen Petersen, BuzzFeed Ideas, January 2015)
From holidaying in Hawaii with Haim to baking cookies with Karlie Kloss, Taylor Swift has amassed a powerful coterie of friends. While I don’t necessarily agree with Petersen’s conclusion in this essay, I appreciate her sharp insight into the world of brand maintenance, female friendship and celebrity status. Read more…
Children’s television programming is always colorful, sometimes educational, and often bizarre. A human-sized hamster wheel? A talking chair? Grown men going to bat for a herd of rainbow-colored ponies? These stories explore the art and economics of making television for kids.
1. “‘It Smelled Like Death’: An Oral History of the Double Dare Obstacle Course.” (Marah Eakin, A.V. Club, November 2016)
Nickelodeon’s hit game show, Double Dare, aired in the late ’80s and early ’90s (with a season-long remount in 2000), and one of its biggest draws was its obstacle course. The A.V. Club spoke to host Marc Summers, the producers and a variety of set designers about the gallons of whipped cream, baked beans and Gak it took to make the messiest show on TV. Pro tip: Don’t eat while reading this. Read more…
Thanks to funding from Longreads Members and a generous match from WordPress.com, we were able to publish another fantastic year of original reporting, essays, book excerpts, and exclusives in partnership with other publishers and some of our favorite writers. If you like what we do and want to support us, considering becoming a Longreads Member today.
Maria Bustillos | Longreads | September 2016 | 40 minutes (10,049 words)
In the first days of 2014, in her senior year at Oberlin and just a few days before the winter term she’d arranged to spend in France, my daughter Carmen’s legs went numb. First her feet got all tingly, then her ankles, calves, and knees. Over three days or so, the numbness crept up to the base of her rib cage, and then stopped. But it didn’t go away—a weird sensation all in her skin, almost as if the whole lower half of her body had been anesthetized. Shingles, the internist told us—really?—okay. The acupuncturist, too, told us he’d been seeing anomalous cases of shingles cropping up in younger people. Carmen seemed to get a little better, and off she went to Paris; the tingling and numbness subsided slowly over the next several weeks, just as we’d been told they would, and the episode faded from memory. But about a year later, they came back again: Not shingles, after all.
Carmen in a hospital bed, uncharacteristically quiet and gloomy, the dark jungle of her curls against slick, plasticky polyester pillowcases. IV steroids, and more and more tests. Legs pretty numb, still. From pregnancy onward, I imagine, most parents harbor a cold little drop of inward fear, even as each day passes peaceful and undisturbed, through birth and babyhood and all the playdates and sleepovers and math tests, rock shows and summer vacations; at any moment, perhaps, from out of nowhere, comes the pounce. Here it is, then. Multiple sclerosis: I didn’t know anything about it really, beyond calamity, wheelchairs, and Annette Funicello. Instant by instant I composed my face and steeled myself as best I could for… what?
For every cliché in the world, naturally. A soul-wracked family, just like the ones you’ll see every day on the Lifetime Channel and the evening news; a brave young person, scared and in trouble; you register a fleeting hope that things will work out for them, in fact or fiction, as you flick to the next station. Now it’s your turn, but you won’t be changing the channel. Can this thing be treated? What is it? How do I discover how bad this will get? Or maybe let me just jump out this motherfucking window this minute, because I’m going to die of the panic alone. Read more…