The National Book Awards, presented by the National Book Foundation, “celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.” There are four categories: fiction, nonfiction, “young people’s literature,” and poetry. Several of this year’s nominees have been featured on Longreads before (see: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adam Johnson, Noelle Stevenson), and this reading list features the five nonfiction nominees. The winner will be announced on November 18, 2015.
1. The Radical: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
“The Hard Truths of Ta-Nehisi Coates.” (Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New York Magazine, July 2015)
“Letter to My Son,” in The Atlantic, adapted from Between the World and Me
You must struggle to truly remember this past. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children.
A collection of stories from Thursday night’s awards, including The New Yorker, Time and National Geographic.
The American Society of Magazine Editors handed out its 2014 National Magazine Awards Thursday night, with Fast Company, New York magazine, Inc., Poetry magazine and Modern Farmer all taking home trophies. Boston Magazine’s stirring cover image (above) following the Boston Marathon bombings was named ASME’s Cover of the Year.
Below is a reading list featuring some of the stories honored Thursday night. Read more…
At National Geographic, Nadia Drake has been writing about NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reaching Pluto this week, and she’s also written about our history with the former planet, which was discovered by 24-year-old Clyde Tombaugh on February 18, 1930:
Tombaugh spent about a year searching for the missing world, using an instrument called a blink comparator. The noisy machine let viewers flip back and forth between long exposures of the sky, often containing hundreds of thousands of stars, taken several days apart. Anything that traveled a significant distance during that time—a planet or an asteroid, for example—would appear to move as the images flipped.
On that late afternoon—it was February 18—Tombaugh was manning the comparator and squinting at thousands of stars, evaluating each one by eye. Suddenly, in photos taken six days apart in January, he spied a small speck of light that didn’t stay put. In one image, it was to the left of two bright stars. In the next, it had jumped a few millimeters to the right of those stars. Tombaugh flipped back and forth between the images and watched the spot leaping in and out of its original position. He grabbed a ruler and measured the precise difference in the spot’s position. Then he found another photo of the sky, taken earlier in January, and searched for the same spot. Finally, he used a hand-magnifier to confirm the potential planet’s presence in one more set of photos, taken by a different camera. After 45 minutes, Tombaugh was convinced.
The latest clue as to why our modern diet may be making us sick comes from Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham, who argues that the biggest revolution in the human diet came not when we started to eat meat but when we learned to cook. Our human ancestors who began cooking sometime between 1.8 million and 400,000 years ago probably had more children who thrived, Wrangham says. Pounding and heating food “predigests” it, so our guts spend less energy breaking it down, absorb more than if the food were raw, and thus extract more fuel for our brains. “Cooking produces soft, energy-rich foods,” says Wrangham. Today we can’t survive on raw, unprocessed food alone, he says. We have evolved to depend upon cooked food.
To test his ideas, Wrangham and his students fed raw and cooked food to rats and mice. When I visited Wrangham’s lab at Harvard, his then graduate student, Rachel Carmody, opened the door of a small refrigerator to show me plastic bags filled with meat and sweet potatoes, some raw and some cooked. Mice raised on cooked foods gained 15 to 40 percent more weight than mice raised only on raw food.
If Wrangham is right, cooking not only gave early humans the energy they needed to build bigger brains but also helped them get more calories from food so that they could gain weight. In the modern context the flip side of his hypothesis is that we may be victims of our own success. We have gotten so good at processing foods that for the first time in human evolution, many humans are getting more calories than they burn in a day. “Rough breads have given way to Twinkies, apples to apple juice,” he writes. “We need to become more aware of the calorie-raising consequences of a highly processed diet.”
— Ann Gibbons in National Geographic on how our diets have evolved and whether returning to a “Stone Age diet” would help prevent high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Shelby Vittek | Longreads | December 2017 | 13 minutes (3,315 words)
It’s a hot August night in 1991 at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, and the delivery room is filled with bright lights. A film crew is documenting a woman giving birth. After almost 12 hours of active labor, it’s time for her to really push.
A few anxious rounds of counting to 10 and many deep breaths later, the doctor says, “Ooooh there you go, lots of hair.”
“That’s it, the baby’s coming!” the red-haired nurse says with excitement.
That’s when I enter the picture, with a head full of red hair of my own.
* * *
I know this scene well. It’s my own birth. Not many people can say they’ve watched their own delivery, but I can.
In fact, I’ve watched myself be born more times than I should probably ever admit to. I’m doing it again tonight for the ninth time this week, sitting on the floor in my studio apartment with my eyes fixated on the television. The sight of my fiery red hair making its debut will never fail to amaze me.
The video of my birth in no way resembles your typical home video. It’s more like a documentary, with my parents and family, and then finally me, as its subjects. Every single reaction of theirs is recorded in the truest manner, and edited as well as early ’90s technology could allow. That’s because it was not shot by a proud father-to-be, but instead a professional film crew. I was paid $300 to be born (the check went directly into my first college fund, I’ve been told), and the footage was used to make an educational video for other expecting parents to watch during Lamaze birthing classes. Hundreds, if not thousands, of other people have watched me be born, too.
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.
Michele Filgate | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,501 words)
Lacuna: an unfilled space or interval; a gap.
Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them. To know what it was like to have one place where we belonged. Where we fit.
My mother is hard to know. Or rather, I know her and don’t know her at the same time. I can imagine her long, grayish-brown hair that she refuses to chop off, the vodka and ice in her hand. But if I try to conjure her face, I’m met instead by her laugh, a fake laugh, the kind of laugh that is trying to prove something, a forced happiness.
Several times a week, she posts tempting photos of food on her Facebook page. Achiote pork tacos with pickled red onions, strips of beef jerky just out of the smoker, slabs of steak that she serves with steamed vegetables. These are the meals of my childhood; sometimes ambitious and sometimes practical. But these meals, for me, call to mind my stepfather; the red of his face, the red of the blood pooled on the plate. He uses a dishtowel to wipe the sweat from his cheeks; his work boots are coated in sawdust. His words puncture me; tines of a fork stuck in a half-deflated balloon.
You are the one causing problems in my marriage, he says. You fucking bitch, he says. I’ll slam you, he says. And I’m afraid he will, I’m afraid he’ll press himself on top of me on my bed until the mattress opens up and swallows me whole. Now, my mother saves all of her cooking skills for her husband. Now, she serves him food at their farmhouse in the country and their condo in the city. Now, my mother no longer cooks for me.
Spenser Mestel | Longreads | September 2017 | 21 minutes (5,400 words)
On July 2, 1972, Angela Davis was sitting in the Plateau Seven restaurant in Santa Clara County, California, a few blocks from the courthouse where she’d spent the previous 13 weeks on trial for criminal conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder. The jury had just started deliberating, and Davis was eating with Rodney Barnette, a friend and former Black Panther. While the two talked, a local reporter emerged from the courthouse pressroom with news for Davis’s family and the activists gathered there: Four black men had hijacked a Western Airlines 727 jetliner carrying 98 passengers and were en route from Seattle to San Francisco. (Later it was confirmed there were only two hijackers, one man and one woman.) Not only were the hijackers demanding $500,000 and four parachutes, but they also wanted these items delivered by Davis, who was to stand on the runway of San Francisco International Airport in a white dress.
When the news reached the restaurant, several patrons around Davis and Barnette suddenly surrounded the pair’s table; these were in fact FBI agents dressed in civilian clothes. Almost a year earlier, Davis had been charged in California with aiding and abetting a murder. Though she hadn’t been at the scene, authorities alleged that guns she’d purchased were used to kill a superior-court judge. The Black Panthers relied on sympathetic Vietnam veterans, like Rodney Barnette, to acquire arms and train new members to use them. Barnette, however, had left the Panthers four years earlier following a suspicious interaction. At a meeting, a stranger claiming to be part of the “Panther Underground” had called Barnette into a back office and told him to beat members who arrived late. Barnette objected. (“We can’t do that to our own people,” he said an interview later. “How could we differentiate the police beating people, and us beating people?”) The man suggested he leave the group.
“I always thought he was some FBI agent,” Barnette would tell an interviewer in 2017. “Some agent provocateur or informant that all of a sudden appeared to try to split the party up.” This unnerving feeling of suspicion persisted even after Barnette left the Panthers. The FBI continued to interview his family members in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Los Angeles, where Barnette had moved and gotten a job as a letter carrier. Despite stellar evaluations from his superiors, in 1969 Barnette was fired from the Postal Service, after less than a year on the job, for living with a woman he wasn’t married to, which qualified at the time as “conduct unbecoming a government employee.”