All through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. This year, our editors featured many COVID-19 stories from across the web, and below, we’ve narrowed down 11 picks that really resonated with us. This roundup is focused on reported features; we initially included a few pandemic essays in this category, but those will instead appear in the upcoming Best of Essays list.
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How the Pandemic Defeated America (Ed Yong, The Atlantic)
The Atlantic‘s coverage of COVID-19 was exceptional this year, and Yong’s deep, thoughtful September feature lays it all out. How did the U.S. get here? Everything that went wrong was predictable and preventable, and despite all of its resources and scientific expertise, America’s leaders failed monumentally to control the virus at every turn.
The coronavirus found, exploited, and widened every inequity that the U.S. had to offer. Elderly people, already pushed to the fringes of society, were treated as acceptable losses. Women were more likely to lose jobs than men, and also shouldered extra burdens of child care and domestic work, while facing rising rates of domestic violence. In half of the states, people with dementia and intellectual disabilities faced policies that threatened to deny them access to lifesaving ventilators. Thousands of people endured months of COVID‑19 symptoms that resembled those of chronic postviral illnesses, only to be told that their devastating symptoms were in their head. Latinos were three times as likely to be infected as white people. Asian Americans faced racist abuse. Far from being a “great equalizer,” the pandemic fell unevenly upon the U.S., taking advantage of injustices that had been brewing throughout the nation’s history.
Inside the Nightmare Voyage of the Diamond Princess (Doug Bock Clark, GQ)
Another devastating read, “The Pariah Ship” by Michael Smith, Drake Bennett, and K. Oanh Haat, recounts the nightmare journey of Holland America’s MS Zaandam.
The pandemic has exposed the flaws of tourism, and cruise ships are a symbol of the disastrous effects that COVID-19 has had on the travel industry as a whole. Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess, which departed on January 20 this year from Japan’s Port of Yokohama, was the first ship to suffer a major outbreak. Clark’s account of the voyage and subsequent quarantine of the ship’s 3,711 passengers and crew is riveting yet terrifying. He weaves stories of numerous people on board, from the more-privileged (a pair of traveling couples called the “Four Amigos”) to the overworked and underprotected (like security crewmember Sonali Thakkar). His reporting of the U.S. government’s response is superb, especially from the perspective of Dr. James Lawler, the infectious-disease expert called in to lead the evacuation of American passengers back to the U.S. We also get a glimpse of what the experience is like for the ship’s captain, Gennaro Arma, who was eventually the last person to disembark.
The Amigos, reduced now to three, along with the 325 other American evacuees, were still waiting on the buses. They had spent three hours idling on the pier and then, once they drove to the airport, sat on the tarmac for two more hours. Now, as the delay extended into a sixth hour, the passengers were nearing revolt. They were exhausted. And more problematically for the largely elderly passengers: The buses had no bathrooms.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., where it was still Sunday afternoon, the fate of the waylaid evacuees was being decided. Around the time the passengers were exiting the Diamond Princess, Japanese officials had blindsided their American counterparts with the news that some of the passengers boarding the buses had actually tested positive several days before. Soon many of the highest-level members of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response team, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, were arguing about what to do. Representatives from the CDC continued to fear spreading the virus. William Walters, the deputy chief medical officer for the State Department, wanted to bring everyone home anyway. Those urging the evacuation noted that the planes had been prepared with isolation units to contain the sick.
As the debate raged, the evacuees were demanding to be let off the buses, quarantine be damned, to find a bathroom. Carl was breathing so hard his masked breath fogged his glasses as he strained to control his bladder. Some seniors were crying. Finally, a few were allowed to relieve themselves in bottles beside the bus or were brought to a nearby terminal.
I have forgotten how to read. It isn’t the first time. I have forgotten before and I will forget again. In other words, I am still learning how to read.
“Read,” like “love” or “think,” has a thousand meanings pressed into one deceptively elementary verb. We use it in a way that tends towards simplicity. It is the connection of sounds and concepts to standardized squiggles, to trails of ink on squares of paper, scratches carved into sticks, glowing lines of curved neon, careful stitches poked through a tight canvas. It can seem a basic skill, at least to those who have left the learning of letters behind.
Watching my son learn it now, I begin to understand how daunting a task it is, even given a phonetic language with a small alphabet, even with all the plasticity of a child’s brain at his disposal. Learning to read is a years-long series of internalizing rules and their many exceptions, of tiny modulations and adjustments. At first I thought it would be a matter of recognizing 26 letters. Then I saw that he must navigate upper and lower cases, print and cursive, different typefaces and hands, the sounds rendered by certain combinations of letters, umlauts and double S’s, unmarked short and long vowels, and the vagaries of foreign words and their unpredictable pronunciations.
So much work requires attention. My son approaches the challenge of decoding the world with intense concentration, straining to squeeze out meaning from each word and image. He is spellbound by anything legible, whether a phrase in bold, clear type or a comic strip that communicates just enough plot to fascinate, and will stare at it for what feels like ages. He is laboring hard, I know, but I still envy his power of absorption. Sometimes it feels like my practice as a reader has made me faster, but not consistently better. When I think of my own journey of learning to read, I am in fact thinking of a long process of learning and forgetting how to be with texts slowly, intimately, deeply.
Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.
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Gary Krist | Excerpt adapted from The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles | Crown | May 2018 | 14 minutes (3,681 words)
Toward the end of 1907, two men showed up in Los Angeles with some strange luggage in tow. Their names were Francis Boggs and Thomas Persons, and together they constituted an entire traveling film crew from the Selig Polyscope Company of Chicago, one of the first motion picture studios in the country. Boggs, the director, and Persons, the cameraman, had come to finish work on a movie — an adaptation of the Dumas classic The Count of Monte Cristo — and were looking for outdoor locations to shoot a few key scenes. As it happened, the harsh midwestern winter had set in too early that year for them to complete the film’s exteriors in Illinois, so they had got permission to take their camera and other equipment west to southern California, where the winters were mild and pleasant. Since money was tight in the barely nascent business of moviemaking, the film’s cast could not come along. So Boggs intended to hire local talent to play the characters originated by actors in Chicago. Motion pictures were still such a new and makeshift medium that audiences, he figured, would never notice the difference.
In downtown Los Angeles, they found a handsome if somewhat disheveled young man — a sometime actor who supplemented his income by selling fake jewelry on Main Street — and took him to a beach outside the city. Here they filmed the famous scene of Edmond Dantès emerging from the waves after his escape from the island prison of the Château d’If. Boggs had a few technical problems to deal with during the shoot. For one, the jewelry hawker’s false beard had a tendency to wash off in the Pacific surf, requiring expensive retakes. But eventually the director and Persons got what they needed. After finishing a few more scenes at various locations up and down the coast, they wrapped up work, shipped the film back to Chicago to be developed and edited, and then left town. Read more…
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Claire Harman | Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart | Knopf | March 2016 | 32 minutes (7,925 words)
The excerpt below is adapted from Claire Harman’s biography of Charlotte Brontë. It tells the story of how the Brontës burst onto the literary scene using male pseudonyms. The sisters slowly came out to a select few, beginning with their father. But Charlotte retained her male identity even in correspondence with her publishers and fellow authors, until tragedy compelled her to reveal the truth. This story comes recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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When the servant came in with the coals, he found Mr. Thackeray weeping over Currer Bell’s love scenes.
Six sets of Jane Eyre arrived at the Parsonage on publication day, 19 October 1847, presumably much to the interest of the postmaster, Mr. Harftley. Reviews began flooding in immediately, from the daily papers, religious journals, provincial gazettes, trade magazines, as well as from the expected literary organs such as the Athenaeum, Critic and Literary Gazette. Charlotte had been anxious about the critical reception of “a mere domestic novel,” hoping it would at least sell enough copies to justify her publisher’s investment—in the event, it triumphed on both fronts. The response was powerful and immediate. Reviewers praised the unusual force of the writing: “One of the freshest and most genuine books which we have read for a long time,” “far beyond the average,” “very clever and striking,” with images “like the Cartoons of Raphael . . . true, bold, well-defined.” “This is not merely a work of great promise,” the Atlas said, “it is one of absolute performance”; while the influential critic George Henry Lewes seemed spellbound by the book’s “psychological intuition”: “It reads like a page out of one’s own life.” It sold in thousands and was reprinted within ten weeks; eventually, even Queen Victoria was arrested by “that intensely interesting novel.” Only four days after publication, William Makepeace Thackeray, whose masterpiece Vanity Fair was unfolding before the public in serial form at exactly the same time, wrote to thank Williams for his complimentary copy of Jane Eyre. He had “lost (or won if you like) a whole day in reading it”; in fact it had engrossed him so much that his own printers were kept waiting for the next instalment of Becky Sharp’s adventures, and when the servant came in with the coals, he found Mr. Thackeray weeping over Currer Bell’s love scenes.
Who was Currer Bell? A man, obviously. This forthright tale of attempted bigamy and an unmarried woman’s passion could have been written only by a man, thought Albany Fonblanque, the reviewer in John Forster’s influential Examiner, who praised the book’s thought and morals as “true, sound, and original” and believed that “Whatever faults may be urged against the book, no one can assert that it is weak or vapid. It is anything but a fashionable novel . . . as an analysis of a single mind . . . it may claim comparison with any work of the same species.”
Charlotte could hardly keep up with responding to the cuttings that her publisher was sending on by every post, and even received a letter from George Henry Lewes while he was writing his review for Fraser’s Magazine, wanting to engage in a detailed analysis of the book. “There are moments when I can hardly credit that anything I have done should be found worthy to give even transitory pleasure to such men as Mr. Thackeray, Sir John Herschel, Mr. Fonblanque, Leigh Hunt and Mr. Lewes,” Currer Bell told his publisher; “that my humble efforts should have had such a result is a noble reward.” It must have been difficult for Emily and Anne to be wholly delighted for their sister, with their own books apparently forgotten, though when Newby saw the success of Currer Bell he suddenly moved back into action with the production of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, hoping to cash in on the excitement. Read more…
For our Longreads Member Pick, we’re thrilled to share the opening chapter of The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, the book by Ben Tarnoff, published by The Penguin Press. Read more…