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.
Margarita Gokun Silver | Longreads | April 2018 | 18 minutes (4,386 words)
On an afternoon in August 2017, I walk out of the library and turn right. At the intersection, the pedestrian light comes on and I cross knowing that once I reach the end of Madrid’s Plaza de Colón, I’d wait less than a minute before I could cross again. I’ve done this walk every day for the past several years, my pace synchronized with the rhythm of traffic lights; my mind concentrated on counting the stairs — 14 of them: seven for my right foot to ascend and seven for my left — and my hand clutching a euro to give to the old man selling tissues on the corner. Everything is the same — skateboards banging against the concrete under the quick feet of their teen devotees, dogs running around the middle of the square let loose by their owners, and, up above, a giant red-and-yellow Spanish flag flying in the wind. Everything but one thing.
I’m on my way to a home that’s no longer there.
A week ago the movers came and methodically went through our three-bedroom apartment. They wrapped our glasses, plates, vases, and the ceramic Don Quixote in bubble wrap. They encased our furniture in cardboard, bending the thick corrugated boxes patiently so that when they were done our couch looked like a mummy-copy of its former self. They sealed our artwork — most of it painted by me — in wooden crates that resembled well-insulated tombs. I wanted to ask if the art could breathe through the layers of paper, plastic, and wood, nailed shut so tightly that not a ray of sunlight could get through. But they were busy, and I didn’t bother them. Instead I went into what used to be our bedroom, lay down on the bed that wasn’t coming with us, and concentrated on my own breathing.
By my count, this was the 18th time I moved homes. Some of those moves were miniscule — just several miles away from where I’d lived, my belongings riding in the back seat of a car in milk crates and an old laundry basket. Others were more substantial — intercontinental relocations that involved wrapped furniture, sea freight, and customs bills. What all of them had in common — and what set them apart from this last one — was that they didn’t evoke grief. Sure, many had been tinged with goodbyes and sadness, but none before had stopped my heart, gelled the blood inside of my veins, and perforated my body with holes that seemed to allow life to seep right out of it.
None of those moves had felt like loss.
At National Geographic, Rene Ebersole reports on how hummingbirds (who are in decline due to habitat loss and climate change) are the victims in increasing illegal trade in their tiny, dead, feathered bodies to make Mexican love potions called chuparosas. Birds are captured in nets and even shot with tiny bits of ammunition to fuel the growing demand. Perhaps the biggest problem? Mexico doesn’t think the illegal trade is a threat to the birds.
“This is the honey jar,” she tells viewers while introducing the ingredients on her workbench: photographs of two would-be lovers, a piece of paper with their names written on it three times, a small glass jar—and a dead hummingbird. She rolls the tiny animal inside the photographs and wraps the cigar-shaped bundle with hot-pink yarn nearly the same shade as her long, fake fingernails.
Showing only her arms and lower body on camera, she shields her identity as she swaddles the package in a sarcophagus of tacky flypaper, dips it in cinnamon spice, squeezes it into the jar, and spritzes it with perfumes and oils—pheromones—“so he’ll stay sexually attracted.” Restless balm “so he’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, I need to call her.’” Sleep oil “so he’ll be like a zombie.” Attraction oil “so he’ll be like, ‘Goddamn, you so beautiful, you so fine.’” Dominating oil “so you dominate his thoughts.”
As an entrepreneurial saleswoman, she tells viewers that any hard-to-find ingredients used in her creations are available for customers. For example, on her website a dead hummingbird—in life a feisty little iridescent green creature with rust-colored tail feathers—is $50. Buying a ready-made honey jar is another option. In an email she quoted me $500.
Humberto Berlanga, Mexico’s coordinator of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, an international forum of government agencies and private organizations, is a member of the delegation. Berlanga doesn’t regard hummingbird trafficking as a high priority. “I suspect the market is not too big, and I don’t think it’s affecting any endangered species, but we don’t have the data,” he said. “Those are my general impressions. People are illegally catching and using the birds, but there’s not enough enforcement to limit and stop this practice—it’s sad, but true.”
This week, we’re sharing stories from Rachel Monroe, Jianan Qian, Rene Ebersole, Adi Robertson, and Kyle Chayka.
Jonny Auping | Longreads | April 2018| 15 minutes (4,096 words)
In his recently released book, The Man Who Caught the Storm, Brantley Hargrove tells the story of an unlikely legend named Tim Samaras, who lived his life grappling with and addicted to one of nature’s most dangerous marvels.
Samaras was a tornado chaser with a simple but absurdly treacherous goal: to get close enough to a twister to glean data from within its core. Hargrove, who spent months on the road chasing tornadoes for the reporting of the book, retraces and recreates Samaras’ most dramatic missions, culminating on May 31, 2014 in El Reno, Oklahoma, where he would face off with the largest tornado ever recorded. That same tornado would take Samaras’ life along with those of his son, Paul, and fellow chaser Carl Young.
“We now live in an era when the Mars Pathfinder rover has touched down on the Red Planet,” Hargrove writes. “The human genome has been mapped. But twisters still have the power to confound even the most advanced civilization the planet has ever known.”
Samaras legacy and life’s work represented a crucial foundation for how to better understand and predict historically unpredictable tornadoes.
But The Man the Who Caught the Storm is hardly a meteorological textbook. Rather Hargrove weaves a uniquely American tale of adventure — “nowhere else on the planet do tornadoes happen like they do in this country,” as he explained to me — diving into the circumstances and makeup that leads a man to chase what he should be running from.
Lacking even a college degree, Samaras was an outsider in the meteorological community, who not only developed one of the most sophisticated information-gathering probes the field had ever seen, but also had the courage (or perhaps unrelenting urge) to personally drop that probe in front of a twister.
Hargrove sat down with Longreads to discuss tornadoes, his own storm chasing, and the addicting thrill of being in the presence of something that can cause unfathomable chaos and destruction.