Jason Diamond | Longreads | October 2017 | 19 minutes (4,639 words)
I had two wardrobes growing up: The first, at my father’s house, was made up of Air Jordans, Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein. At my mother’s house I had no-name brands, sneakers that were worn until they were falling apart, and second-hand shirts and sweaters that we’d pick up at the local Goodwill. That was life living under two different roofs of divorced parents in different economic brackets. My father had everything, my mother had very little. My father took us to the mall to buy things, my mother, more often than not, to thrift stores. Malls, where everything was laid out perfectly, were places to be seen carrying shopping bags; thrift stores, meanwhile, were intimate and offered more adventure. At some point, despite kids making fun of me for my shabby clothes, I grew to like the second-hand places more; you never knew what you would find. As I got older, I still shopped at thrift stores out of financial necessity, but it was also an aesthetic choice.
When I think back on the things I found in thrift stores as a teenager, my mind flashes to the jerseys of former Chicago Bulls who played during the first-half of the team’s dynasty run in the 1990s (#54 Horace Grant, #10 B.J. Armstrong), electronics no more than a decade old that were already considered obsolete, and countless copies of Whipped Cream & Other Delights by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Like a prospector, I spent my high school years combing through Abercrombie & Fitch shirts worn by the kinds of kids I tried to avoid, strings of used Christmas lights, power suits I considered wearing as a David Byrne in Stop Making Sense Halloween costume, and other things people didn’t want or need anymore, all to find one tiny morsel of gold. Those little nuggets included an “Aloha Mr. Hand” Beastie Boys ringer T-shirt when I was 14 at a Salvation Army, an autographed picture of Tim Allen that I taped up in my locker as a joke, a sealed vinyl copy of Let it Be by The Replacements, and a Mies van der Rohe-designed Barcelona chair for $40. In my trash heap of a college apartment, I played video games and spilled beer on this pricey piece of designer furniture. I assume my roommates threw it out after I left.
I’ve always gravitated towards older things. I didn’t want to wear anything brand new from The Gap or “No Fear” shirts like my classmates did, and I liked the idea of being surrounded by items people didn’t want anymore. I preferred the old VHS players that went out when DVD players came in. Cassette tapes, old copies of National Geographic and Esquire, along with other relics, served as an education of sorts. They were things I saw as a small child but hadn’t been allowed to touch or own. I’d look at old furniture and notice hand-carved signatures in the wood, a sign that somebody had made it — it wasn’t some mass-produced lump of particle board.
Then there were the books. High school had taught me about Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin. Thrift stores gave me my first tastes of Karl Marx, Saul Bellow, Albert Camus, Mary McCarthy, and Salman Rushdie. Both invaluable curriculums, but second-hand books allowed me an opportunity to design my own for about 25 cents a lesson, or five for a dollar. The covers made me feel like I was in a dusty little art gallery: The Modernist designs of Alvin Lustig for New Directions; the iconic, handsome, orange Penguin paperbacks; the seedy, sexy characters of 1950s pulp fiction.
I mostly judged the books by their covers, but there was one in particular I became obsessed with, inside and out. Used copies of this ghostly relic from 1984 are as common in thrift stores as old Barbra Streisand records or Sega Genesis video games. It’s a book I love, which I’ve had on every bookshelf I’ve owned; a book and a cover that I think sum up so much of my taste: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.
There are a number of reasons a writer may waffle on the question of which events in the book match up with her life. Most writers receive the question of whether something in their fiction “really happened” as an accusation, without being exactly sure what they are being accused of. There can be the egotistical concern that a writer is considered less “creative” if what she has done is “simply” to document what happened in “real life.” But everybody knows, or should, that just because something happened does not guarantee dynamite on the page. Effervescent dinner parties recorded and transcribed read like somber autopsies. Also, a writer may wish to preserve some privacy—not only for herself, but also to protect the people she is already betraying.
Still, the connection between writing and reality is impossible to ignore. This is not just a question of “realism,” or of the sort of undramatized alignment with actual events that fills the six volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Consider Tolstoy. Levin’s proposal to Kitty in Anna Karenina (which takes place over a board game) mirrored Tolstoy’s own proposal, and the scene in which the young fiancé insists on showing his bride-to-be the diaries recounting his extensive youthful debaucheries also came straight from Tolstoy’s life. He seems not to have gone to any great lengths to disguise identities—the maid in Levin’s house, Agafya Mikhaylovna, has the precise name of one of his own maids, and in the early drafts of War and Peace the central family was called “the Tolstoys.” According to one of his biographers, Tolstoy performed his work in progress for his family and friends. The biographer makes it sound like a party: “Doctor Bers arranged an evening at the house. … Tolstoy was to read aloud from his novel. … [T]he more pages he read, the more vividly they all began to recognize themselves. ‘Mama?’, the hostess ecclaimed. ‘Marya Dmitriyevna Akhrosimov is you!’”
—From a piece by Mona Simpson about the Italian writer Elena Ferrante, which appeared in The New Republic.
Magazine nerds, here we go: A starter collection of behind-the-scenes stories from some of your most beloved magazines, including The New Yorker, Time, Entertainment Weekly, Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair and the New York Review of Books, plus now-defunct publications like Might, George, Sassy and Wigwag. Share your favorite behind-the-magazine stories with us on Twitter or Facebook: #longreads. Read more…
On the role of nannies in a child’s upbringing, and the complications (emotional and financial) and joy that come with it:
Seeing Michele Asselin’s portraits, I remember the heightened sensitivity of my first months as a parent. The pictures are beautiful and idealized. The women look at the children with love. No one looks frustrated. No one looks bored. No child is having a meltdown. They conjure the dome of tender air that encloses a mother, whose body is coursing with hormones, and a newborn.
But these moments of private contentment, with the serenity and depth borrowed from the portraiture legacy of the Madonna and child, do not depict mothers with their infants. The women holding the children are nannies. Part of what’s striking about the pictures is that they position front and center a person who is often left on the editing-room floor when a family’s memories are being assembled. Nannies have told me that their employers crop them out of photographs of their children. On the wall of a West Los Angeles home, I noticed a blown-up photo of a baby in a pretty white dress, held by a pair of hands of a darker color. In her photos, Asselin captures a radiance between caregivers and children, often of different races.
I grew up as an only child, with a single mother. Because we were poor and because I knew my father had emigrated from Syria, I imagined he looked like Omar Sharif. I hoped he would be rich and kind and would come into our lives (and our not yet furnished apartment) and help us. Later, after I’d met my father, I tried to believe he’d changed his number and left no forwarding address because he was an idealistic revolutionary, plotting a new world for the Arab people. Even as a feminist, my whole life I’d been waiting for a man to love, who could love me. For decades, I’d thought that man would be my father. When I was 25, I met that man and he was my brother.
Radhika Jones is executive editor of Time.
I got to work on a number of great longreads at Time this year, among them Lev Grossman on fan fiction, Kate Pickert on the perils of cancer screening, and Kurt Andersen on the Year of the Protester. But these are a few of the pieces from other venues that have stuck with me.
I didn’t follow the great Charlie Sheen meltdown of spring 2011. But I read every word of Roseanne Barr’s Sheen-inspired treatise on sitcom fame, in which she opens a window onto the warped and warping world of celebrity. It was a brilliant assignment, sharply executed and highly entertaining.
This is about the most exhilarating piece of business writing I have ever read, mostly thanks to Lewis’s summary of the trope of shit in German culture and its relation to the European financial crisis, which I found both hilarious and totally plausible. It was like stumbling into a graduate seminar on formalist readings of macroeconomics textbooks. I mean that in a really good way.
There’s nothing flashy or attention-seeking about Ken Auletta’s profile of Jill Abramson; it makes my top five because I found it fascinating to watch a picture of her emerge from the figure she cuts in the workplace. It emerges slowly—you have to wade through a lot of meetings—but Auletta was smart to go for inspirational at the outset: as a woman in publishing, I felt invested in Abramson’s rise and in the way she’s cultivated authority, intelligence and ambition.
We all read a ton about Steve Jobs in the days after his death. Then Mona Simpson’s eulogy came along, reinvented the Jobs memoriam and blew the competition away. It was elegant, personal and lovingly attentive to detail—a tribute perfectly fitted to the man it honored. He was very lucky to have a writer for a sister.
I grew up in Cincinnati, back when WKRP was on the air and Jerry Springer was the mayor. It’s a city of in-betweens, and James Pogue’s rambling, evocative essay in n+1 captures its contradictions perfectly. I love the idea of a piece whose main goal is to take you somewhere else—in geography, in history and in memory.
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.
I should preface this by saying I didn’t plan to do a list, because all of your Top 5 Longreads of 2011 really represent what the Longreads community is all about. But, in true WWIC form, I couldn’t resist.
Thank you for an incredible year. Special thanks to the entire Longreads team: Joyce King Thomas, Kjell Reigstad, Hakan Bakkalbasi and Mike Dang.
-Mark Armstrong, founder, Longreads
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The heartbreaking, horrifying story of a chimp named Travis and the Connecticut couple that raised him like a son. Lee followed Travis’s path from local celebrity to fully grown (and violent) adult:
“Travis” was the first in a “tabloid-with-empathy” trilogy from Lee: He also brought humanity to the story of Anna Nicole Smith (“Paw Paw & Lady Love”) and wrote about Harold Camping, the elderly doomsayer who never quite got his apocalypse calendar right (“After the Rapture”).
A child-prodigy author mysteriously disappears. Barbara Follett was 13 when her first novel, The House Without Windows, was published in 1927:
This was from December 2010, but it came out after last year’s best-of list was published. It’s also on The Awl editors’ best-of-2011 list. I still think about this story constantly.
A manifesto for the modern woman:
A political conspiracy in Guatemala and the murder of lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg, who created a video predicting his own killing in 2009:
Obviously, with David Grann, it’s never so straightforward.
A reporter retraces the last years of a woman who slipped away from society:
Once you finish this piece, read the annotated version of this story, in which Kruse breaks down exactly how he reported each fact from Kathryn Norris’s life. Incredible.
A fatal human error, repeated over and over again, as the reader observes helplessly. Writer Jeff Wise uses pilot transcripts to deconstruct, conversation by conversation, wrong move by wrong move, how bad weather and miscommunication between the pilots in the cockpit doomed this Airbus 330, which plunged into the Atlantic in 2009, killing 228 people:
This, along with “Travis the Menace” and Wired’s “The Incredible True Story of the Collar Bomb Heist,” was one of the most heart-stopping of the year.
A year in the life of an autistic teen moving into adulthood—a time when support systems can begin to fall away:
Harmon’s was one of several outstanding pieces this year on the subject of autism. Also see Steve Silberman on John Elder Robison, an author with Asperger syndrome.
Revisiting the Texas gang-rape story, and a reminder about protecting our youngest victims. Dobie spends time with the girl’s family and attempts to understand how some members of the community could jump to the defense of the 19 men and boys accused:
Just one of many outstanding pieces from GQ this year, including “The Movie Set that Ate Itself,” essays from John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Blindsided: The Jerry Joseph High School Basketball Scandal,” and a fun collection of oral histories.
The final moments, and unforgettable last words, of a technology visionary’s life:
Steve Jobs tributes poured in during October and November, including a touching tribute from veteran tech journalist Steven Levy. Some of the best reading came from Steve himself, with his 2005 Stanford Commencement speech.
The ultimate DFW fan goes on a road trip to see what was on his bookshelves and pore over the marginalia for clues about his life: