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Longreads Best of 2020: Writing on COVID-19

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

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.

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Longreads Best of 2020: Music Writing

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

A long, long time ago / I can still remember / How that music used to make me smile
—Don McLean, American Pie

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Like A Shovel and a Rope (David Ramsey, Oxford American)

In the before times, a little over a year ago, we traveled to Savannah, Georgia, for a music festival. It was fall, but still sweltering. We stood for hours directly in front of the stage, shoulder-to-shoulder with sweaty strangers who, too, love music. This seems like a heat-induced fever dream, an act now incomprehensible. The day’s highlight was seeing Shovels & Rope — the husband-and-wife duo of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst — play live. The energy and intensity of their performance outshone the sun on that humid Georgia afternoon.

At Oxford American, David Ramsey’s intimate portrait of the hardest-working couple in rock ‘n’ roll is a love letter written in 40 short parts. Ramsey captures not only the je ne sais quoi of Shovels & Rope, he documents the down and dirty, the ordinary sleepless exasperation of raising a family while writing, recording, and touring.

Many of their best songs have a deliberateness on the topic of how to build a life, both wistful and hard-edged. “Making something out of nothing with a scratch and a hope,” they sing on “Birmingham,” their origin-myth anthem, “two old guitars like a shovel and a rope.”

There is a way of singing that is a distant cousin of the temper tantrum. A sound that simmers at the bend and snap of the spirit, fragile and fierce. We are peculiar animals that sing songs to each other, but we are still animals.

I think what got me hooked on the way that Cary Ann sings shares something of this current, the way something so powerful could have such brittle edges. Shovels & Rope is like this, too—they seem to conjure in each other a kind of frenzy, grease and fury, tender cries at the edge of a scream. They are an anthemic band, but their medium is the fragility of the anthem: Something about to break.

The thing that they do, I hesitate to say that you have to be there, but—there is an intimacy and devilment to their live performance, a lift and crash, that has been hard to capture on record. So that their art, like the lives they have carved out for themselves, is a thing on the move, uncatchable as a storm. Home and the road and home on the road.

Pure Magic: The Oral History of Prince’s Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show (Alan Siegel, The Ringer)

When I think of Prince, I remember his musical genius. How when he did something, he did it his own way and how his way was always a sharp cut above, a sneak peek into his brilliance, which seemed to radiate from him like heat from the sun. His approach to the 2007 Superbowl half-time show was no different, from how he secured the job and created the setlist, to how he ignored the traditional pre-event press conference requirement to play a few songs instead. Then of course, there was his legendary game-day performance — in the pouring rain, to boot. A truer artist there never was.

Meglen: We had a little meal, just the four of us. At the end of the meal, Prince reached down, and he had a little portable DVD player, because that’s what you had at the time. We weren’t going online at that point. He had a bunch of the previous Super Bowl halftimes. And he basically was critiquing them, saying, “This was good but I wouldn’t have done this.”

Hayes: This is what his thing is: “I don’t care about how you did it before. This is how I do it.”

Meglen: Which finally prompted Saltz to go, “What would you do?” He looked at Saltz, and in his normal Prince way, said, “Sir, follow me, please.” And the three of us followed him upstairs into the living room. And the entire band was standing there in position.

Hayes: He tried to give us a heads-up just to make sure we were on point. Just so, like, everybody knew their stuff.

Meglen: He went over, put on his guitar, and said, “Hit it.”

Arzate: He gave us actually all a private show. The cleaning people, myself, and the executives.

Mischer: When we said, “You’ll have to have a press conference. They would like to interview you,” Prince point blank said, “I don’t do interviews.”

Mischer: He said, “I’m just gonna play for them.” And we said “OK.”

Shelby J.: As we’re walking to the stage I’m like, “I think I’m gonna be sick.” All I can see ahead of me is all these cameras. And so there were these doors over to my left, I didn’t say a word to anybody. I just kindly excused myself for a moment. There were bushes outside. I literally got sick, stood back up, and was like, “OK.” And people were [there] in their Super Bowl garb, but they don’t know me from a can of paint, so I was cool with that. I shut the door and came back in.

Adande: Prince and all his people come out and kind of pick up their instruments, and take their positions.

Flanked by Australian dancers Nandy and Maya McClean—the Twinz—Prince stepped up to the microphone in a salmon-colored suit, thanked Mischer, and addressed the reporters sitting in front of him. “We hope we don’t rock your ears too much,” he said. “Contrary to rumor, I’d like to take a few questions right now.” At that moment, someone in the crowd blurted out, “Prince, how do you feel about performing …”

Adande: I think it was a plant.

Gongaware: It was one of the sportswriters.

Adande: Before he could even finish [the question], Prince just breaks into “Johnny B. Goode.”

Push Play (Chris Dennis, Guernica)

Throughout our lives, most thinking human beings struggle with the question of who we are. As Chris Dennis so eloquently puts it, “We align ourselves with some predominant pattern to alleviate not just our own loneliness, but the perceived loneliness of others around us—until some wild, original thing appears and, against our simpler nature, we leap for it.” For Dennis, loving the music of Dolly Parton and her unabashed conviction in being her made-up, bouffant, silicone-enhanced self helped him understand his own identity.

In the fall of 1986 I turned seven years old, and my father gave me a used black Magnavox boombox. It was sitting on the coffee table when I came home from school. “Push play,” my dad said, and the look on his face confused me, until I realized that the surprise—the actual gift—was the cassette tape he’d already put in the player. So I pushed play. Looking back, it’s obvious that he had fast-forwarded to the song he knew I would immediately recognize and want to hear, because I’d heard it on the radio in the car several times and sang all the words. But when I pushed play, I suddenly felt embarrassed, uncertain, because I loved the song very much and the gift meant that my dad knew: that he saw me, and approved of my loving it. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted my dad to understand me in this way. I had some ineffable sense that loving Dolly Parton might be something I should hide.

Meet the Revolutionary Women Strumming Their Way Into the World of Flamenco Guitar (Lavinia Spalding, AFAR)

I started to study guitar four years ago, finally making good on a dream I’d put off and denied myself for decades. A few years later, I started studying bass too. Of all the decisions in my life, committing to music has had a profound influence on me, on how I perceive my limitations and my potential. It’s a daily labor of love, where focus and concentration bring small, yet regular rewards from learning to read music, playing songs, training my ear, and working on rhythm and timing. While I’ll never achieve mastery, Lavinia Spalding’s piece at AFAR immediately resonated with me. A child guitar prodigy, she gave up playing in her teens. In a bid to reclaim her music skills and reconnect with her late father, Spalding travels to Spain to study with three tocaoras — the oh-so-rare female Flamenco guitar masters. This piece reminds me of the sheer joy of learning music and how powerful a good teacher’s encouragement can be.

You don’t need to read music to play flamenco, she says. “Flamenco is ninety percent improvisational,” she explains. “It comes from the houses; it’s deep inside the people. It’s an ethnic music, not a scholastic music.” She suggests I simply follow along while she plays falsetas, or soleares melodies. Then her hands explode across the strings like fireworks, and all I can do is stare. And panic. And realize how unprepared I actually am.

Fortunately, she’s as encouraging as she is talented and tenacious. “You’ve got it!” she says again and again during our hour together. She repeats this praise even when it’s abundantly clear that I have not, in fact, got it. Toward the end of our lesson, she suggests I record a video of her playing slowly. Back in my rented apartment, I watch the video 50 times and practice fanatically—once for six hours straight—until I memorize the falsetas. And when my fingertips start tingling, I’m euphoric. I run my thumb over them like they’re a row of tiny talismans.

“I miss my body when it was ferocious”: The Transfiguration of Paul Curreri (Brendan Fitzgerald, Longreads)

Imagine that there is a thing you are put on this earth to do, and then suddenly, you’re no longer physically able to do it. This is exactly what happened to singer-songwriter Paul Curreri, who was cut down in his musical prime, sidelined by permanent injury. “Paul Curreri gives what few songwriters can,” Matt Dellinger wrote in The New Yorker in 2002. “It hits you soon and hard that you’re hearing something exquisite.” In this deeply researched and carefully crafted Longreads feature, journalist Brendan Fitzgerald documents Curreri’s uneasy relationship with his body and his art after suffering damage to the primary tools of his trade — his fretting hand and vocal chords.

In 2008, Curreri’s body began to mutiny. A vocal hemorrhage canceled a tour; another silenced him for more than a year. He self-produced two more studio albums, then he and his wife left Charlottesville. They tried Berlin, and then Austin, Texas. In 2012, while working on demos for a new album, Curreri injured his voice a third time, after which his body seemed all at once to come undone. A twinge in his fretting hand appeared overnight and did not resolve; a doctor told him the pain would not improve. Both arms became inflamed and ached in such a way that, for a time, Curreri found it hard to turn a doorknob or hold a fork. He shelved the new songs and moved with Sproule back to Charlottesville.

Curreri’s appeal, for me, had always lived in his brazen standoffs with limitation, failure, and dissolution. “Beauty fades — it goes a-crackin’ and a-juttin’,” he sang on 2004’s The Spirit of the Staircase. “Some folks go slow, some all of a sudden.” For years, Curreri’s work had shouted, and so he became a shouter of singular beauty. Then, he went quiet — slowly, at first, then all of a sudden.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.

Longreads Best of 2020: Business Writing

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

Through December, we’re featuring Longreads’ Best of 2020. After revisiting hundreds of business stories picked by the team this year, we’ve narrowed down our favorites. Enjoy these nine reads, including coverage of the wildest startup collapses and in-depth explorations of pandemic insurance, TikTok content houses, 5G, and the state of the fossil fuel industry.

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Unlucky Charms: The Rise and Fall of Billion-Dollar Jewelry Empire Alex and Ani (Aaron Gell, Marker)

Carolyn Rafaelian spent 15 years building a jewelry empire, making her company, famous for its $30 expandable wire bracelets, one of the fastest-growing fashion brands ever. But what led to Alex and Ani’s fall? Aaron Gell’s piece has it all: an odd alliance between a spiritual “earth mother” founder and an Army major-turned-CEO, business decisions influenced by astrology and New Age practices, a $1.1 billion gender discrimination lawsuit against Bank of America, and even a spinoff into a “university”that was meant to share the company’s life lessons with the world.

Buzzwords aside, the curriculum mostly aimed to impart an essential truth behind Alex and Ani’s appeal: Its products were not just glittery trinkets but spiritual armor designed to protect, inspire, and ennoble the bearer as she made her way through the world. Retail employees at the company’s “bangle bars” were known internally as “bar tenders” for their patience and empathy. They’d draw out customers’ personal stories — what AAU president Dennis Rebelo called “story birthing” — prescribing just the right stones and talismans (the Eye of Horus for protection, light, and reason; the dragonfly for grace, change, and power) for each unique journey.

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‘Writing Was a Way to Have My Say’: An Interview with Author Sejal Shah

Photo courtesy of the author / UGA Press

Longreads is fortunate to have published an excerpt from Sejal Shah‘s essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance. Read “Your Wilderness is Not Permanent.”

At Guernica, Kelly Sundberg interviews author Sejal Shah about coming to terms with the shift in her identity after leaving academia, the nuances of making deeply personal and emotional experiences legible to readers, and how the question “Where are you from?” is often less about genuine inquiry and more about interrogation.

Guernica: You write in your introduction, about microaggressions: “Writing was a way to have my say—to pick up those words like a piece of glass and turn it over in the sun and consider the sharp edges or blunted corners.” This makes me think a lot about the gap between experience and an inability to articulate that experience. In what ways does writing help you find a way to fill those linguistic gaps?

Sejal Shah: Writing helped me by forcing me to find a form that accommodates and allows for and even represents or at least acknowledges those linguistic gaps. I am so grateful to have discovered the lyric essay. I read Citizen by Claudia Rankine in 2016, and I saw her give a talk that year that I found transformative—it was after the election, on the last day of November. I reread Citizen while putting my manuscript together in 2018. To see PTSD and the repeated impact of different kinds of violence on the page, and also, the gaps on the page—actually what it looks like—made me think of how I struggled with microaggressions and what do you do in this moment of violence?

There is a line in Citizen, “The route is often associative.” She also writes, “Not long ago you are in a room where someone asks the philosopher Judith Butler what makes language hurtful. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she answers. We suffer from the condition of being addressable. Our emotional openness, she adds, is carried by our addressability. Language navigates this.” I thought that was so helpful. “We suffer from the condition of being addressable.” I struggle with this in my own life. Once you see the way someone sees you, I don’t think you can unsee it.

As to the form of the lyric essay, I didn’t know at first what I was doing. I was just trying to represent the inside of the feeling. The first lyric essay that I wrote, “Street Scene” was about my friend LeeAnne [who died by suicide]. I had really struggled with how to write about the grief and loss and shock, and also with what was mine to share? I based that essay on a painting by the same name [Maurice Utrillo’s Street Scene], and continuing to work with images and colors was the thread that showed me how to write it.

Read the interview

For the Love of Mail: Letter Writing in a Pandemic

Longreads Pick

“To mail a letter is to send something out in the world with a faith that it will reach its destination. Writing is the same way. We write with hope that our work, like a letter, will find its way to where it needs to go.” Lauren Markham muses on the magic of the U.S. Postal Service.

Source: Literary Hub
Published: Sep 4, 2020
Length: 12 minutes (3,063 words)

Rewriting Country Music’s Racist History

Longreads Pick

“First, you exclude black people from the festivals. Then write them out by not recording them. And pretty soon, ‘you have this manufactured image of country music being white and being poor. But when a narrative is that clean,’ Giddens warns, ‘somebody wrote it.'”

Source: Rolling Stone
Published: Jun 5, 2020
Length: 11 minutes (2,935 words)

How Travel Writing May Look After the Pandemic

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

Speaking on a podcast about Coronavirus, Best American Travel Writing series editor Jason Wilson “declared that this was ’the extinction event’ for a certain type of travel publishing.“ In an essay for Guernica, Wilson expounds further, considering the ways travel restrictions and fears about infection will shape the way people write about travel, while acknowledging that all we can do is speculate and wait. And until then, we can read travel books like Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana as Wilson did. We can reminisce about past journeys, and we can see how the stories in future editions of Best American Travel Writing look compared to ones before COVID-19.

In the months that have passed since my pessimistic podcast appearance, I’ve had a change of heart about the future of travel writing. Of course it will survive, as it has before, even if the publishing models radically change. Travel writers, once again, will embrace new forms, experiment, borrow from other genres and find novel approaches. Many people have suggested that, once we’re free from lockdown, more modest domestic or local travel, rather than exotic foreign adventures, will take center stage. They say narratives about home might become significant and popular.

When I think of local travel, I think of Hopkins Pond, a small body of water in the wooded park near my home in Haddonfield, New Jersey. The park is not very well maintained by the county, but on sunny days it’s still beautiful. I often take long walks there around the edge of pond, where I’ll encounter a handful of people fishing, joggers, or families riding bikes. In most ways it’s a completely typical suburban recreational area.

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On Travel Writing

Longreads Pick

Shelter in place has given The Best American Travel Writing series editor a lot of time to think about travel writing’s future, and whether pandemic will move travel writers’ focus closer to home.

Published: May 26, 2020
Length: 8 minutes (2,017 words)

Japan: A Longform Reading List of Longform Writing

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Before I traveled to Japan for the first time in 2014, I read as much about the country as time allowed. Japanese culture and ecology had interested me since I discovered anime in the fifth grade; I read books by Pico Iyer and Donald Richie, novels by Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, and collected countless online stories about everything from Japanese architecture to history to customs. I wanted to understand more about this island chain that has been inhabited since at least 30,000 BCE. I wanted to know more about this aggressively innovative culture simultaneously committed to tradition, a country that is famously easy to navigate by train but difficult to integrate into as an outsider. I wanted to understand Tokyo, the world’s largest city, whose allure comes partly from its incomprehensibility.

My library was filled with anthologies on my other passions California, the American South, jazz. But while I had stellar fiction anthologies on Japan, like The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction and Tokyo Stories: A Literary Stroll, the nonfiction book I wanted didn’t exist.  I couldn’t find a single, English-language anthology collecting longform nonfiction about Japan. So I made it.

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Tressie McMillan Cottom on Writing in One’s Own Voice

Longreads Pick

“And yet, for academics this is a constant tension. They have this idea that the writing should be secondary, or distinct, from the thinking. And I’ve always found that very bizarre. How are you thinking, if you are not writing?”

Source: Public Books
Published: Apr 23, 2020
Length: 15 minutes (3,977 words)