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What Lies Beyond: A Reading List About Life and Death

Photo: UNSPLASH.COM/@WILLVANW

On Thursday, I got two new tattoos. One was impulsive; the other, planned. The latter is above my right knee, in small print, all-caps: REDEEM THE TIME. It’s something my favorite English professor used to drawl in class. It’s from the book of Ephesians: “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, / Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” 

The days are evil because they will come to an end. In Christianity, mortality is a result of mankind’s fall from grace. Before Adam and Eve partook in the Garden of Eden, they were destined to live forever. No more. Everyone dies.

If I dwell too long on my own mortality, I have a panic attack. I have to come at death sideways–through headlines about celebrities, say, or poetry. How can something so real and (relatively) imminent feel so unreal? And then, you get the call—from the doctor, the police, your mother, whomever. It doesn’t matter who calls; the call will come.

So I got a second tattoo, because it’s all going to end. It’s a three-inch blade turned down towards my ankle, modeled after Joan of Arc’s sword. “I know it’s cliche,” I joked to Emily, and she smiled but didn’t deny it. I texted a picture to my friend. “You’re a warrior,” she sent back. I don’t know about that.

On Saturday, I’ll join thousands of people at the Women’s March on Washington. I can’t say I’m not afraid. I’m afraid of our president-elect and his supporters. My ever-present anxiety regardign death has my brain concocting bizarre and terrifying scenarios in which the march on Jan. 21 become a massacre. I am afraid my first protest will be my last. I know I am not alone in my fear, and I don’t want to let my fear of death hold me back.

The stories I’ve included this week are about eternal life and the fear we feel while contemplating the lack thereof. Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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Below, our favorite stories of the week.

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A Resolute 2017: A Reading List

Photo: Kevin Cole

In 2016, I published my New Year’s resolutions on Longreads. As 2017 dawns, I thought I’d check in with my old self, dust off 2016’s goals and set some new intentions.

1. Alas, I never did make it to Iceland, but I did a lot of domestic travel in 2016. In Washington State, I touched the Pacific Ocean for the first time and slept on a sailboat. In Asheville, I got a new tattoo and swooned inside Firestorm Books & Cafe. I saw friends and family marry in Richmond and Chautauqua. I saw Deaf West perform Spring Awakening and the one-weekend revival of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in NYC. I even visited Foamhenge! (That’s me in the photo above.) I’m returning to Asheville in 2017; beyond that, I have no concrete travel plans. Feel free to sponsor me on a trip to the ends of the Earth and back! I’ll write about it! For now, I’m seeing the world via the following essays from 2016:

Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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Below, our favorite stories of the week.

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Longreads Best of 2016: Under-Recognized Stories

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We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in under-recognized stories.

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Michael J. Mooney
Dallas-based freelance writer, co-director of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

You Are Not Going to Die Out Here: A Woman’s Terrifying Night in the Chesapeake (John Woodrow Cox, The Washington Post)

I saw this story posted and shared a few times when it first ran, but in the middle of an insane election cycle, it didn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. This is the tale of Lauren Connor, a woman who fell off a boat and disappeared amid the crashing waves of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s about the search to find her, by both authorities and her boyfriend, and about a woman whose life had prepared her perfectly for the kinds of challenges that would overwhelm most of us. This is a deadline narrative, but it’s crafted so well—weaving in background and character development at just the right moments, giving readers so many reasons to care—that you couldn’t stop reading if you wanted to.


Kara Platoni
A science reporter from Oakland, California, who teaches at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of We Have the Technology, a book about biohacking.

Michelle’s Case (Annie Brown, California Sunday)

A clear-eyed, thought-provoking retelling of Michelle-Lael Norsworthy’s long legal battle in hope of becoming the first American to receive sex-reassignment surgery while in prison. Her lawyers argued that the surgery was medically necessary and withholding it violated the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. But, they argued, rather than grant the surgery and set a legal precedent, the Department of Corrections instead ordered her parole. The piece is a nuanced take on what it’s like to transition in prison—at least 400 California inmates were taking hormone replacement therapy when the article was published in May—where trans women are vulnerable to sexual assault and survivors are placed in a kind of solitary confinement, stuck in limbo in a prison system where it’s unsafe for them to live with men, but they are generally not allowed to live with women. And it asks a bigger question: What kind of medical care must the state cover?


Azmat Khan
Investigative Reporter, New America Future of War Fellow.

Nameplate Necklaces: This Shit Is For Us (Collier Meyerson, Fusion)

At first, it may seem like a simple essay about cultural appropriation, but this opus on the nameplate necklace is so much more than that. It is a beautiful ode to black and brown fashion. It is a moving history of how unique names became a form of political resistance to white supremacy. And it is the biting reality check Carrie Bradshaw so desperately needed. Read more…

Longreads Best of 2016: Investigative Reporting

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We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in investigative reporting.

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Francesca Mari
Senior Editor at The California Sunday Magazine.

My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard (Shane Bauer, Mother Jones)

Hands down the best reporting I read all year is Shane Bauer’s “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard.” Bauer applied for a job at the Winn Correctional Center in Louisiana; though, let’s be real, as you’ll learn from the piece, applications are hardly necessary. Winn, which is run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the company that basically invented private prisons in the eighties, pretty much begged him to come onboard. After all, the pay is $9 an hour, the shifts are twelve hours long, and only some one-third of hires stick around. Bauer’s piece gets readers up to speed on the history of private prisons and their ubiquity today and takes readers deep into the particulars of the understaffed hellhole that is Winn–a place in which the guards, having so little support, are left to negotiate their own rules with prisoners. Bauer’s portrait of the prison community–and it is a community–is rich, illuminating without being condescending, in part because Bauer is, to some extent, a participant. Here’s a taste of an exchange between Bauer’s 19-year-old coworker, a kid all too keen to demonstrate his power named Collinsworth, and a prisoner he won’t deign to talk to:

“The best thing you could do is get to know people in the place.”
“I understand it’s your home,” Collinsworth says. “But I’m at work right now.”

“It’s your home for 12 hours a day! You trippin’. You ’bout to do half my time with me. You straight with that?”

“It’s probably true.”

“It ain’t no ‘probably true.’ If you go’ be at this bitch, you go’ do 12 hours a day.” He tells Collinsworth not to bother writing up inmates for infractions: “They ain’t payin’ you enough for that.” Seeming torn between whether to impress me or the inmate, Collinsworth says he will only write up serious offenses, like hiding drugs.

The Architect Who Became a Diamond (Alice Gregory, The New Yorker)

First of all–mini spoiler alert–you can make a diamond out of someone’s ashes! That’s just one of the odd little twists in Alice Gregory’s nail-biter about the most unlikely of nail-biter subjects–an architect’s archive. The architect in question is the very on-trend (and truly talented) Luis Barragán, who designed geometric buildings with vivid colors throughout Mexico. And the problem is that a Swiss manufacturing family owns his archive. The woman in that family for whom the archive was bought is determined to carefully catalog his work herself and protect his legacy and so she has refused to grant anyone access to his archive for the last two decades. This story is about a contemporary artist’s clever plot to persuade her otherwise. Gregory’s excellent structuring lends suspense and urgency to questions about how to best maintain a virtuoso’s legacy. Who should be allowed access to his archives and who should determine who should be allowed access? Read more…

Longreads Best of 2016: Political Analysis

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We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in political analysis.

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Kiese Laymon
A Professor of English and Creative Writing at University of Mississippi, and author of forthcoming memoir, Heavy.

The Trouble With the Liberal Arguments Against Third-Party Voters—and What to Do About It (Josie Duffy Rice, The Daily Kos)

I got tired of reading about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016, especially when most pieces could be lumped in the For or Against piles. But Josie Duffy consistently managed to make me think and feel not just what I hadn’t thought or felt, but what I tried to avoid thinking and feeling. Her piece, “The Trouble With Liberal Argument Against 3rd Party Candidates …” is amazing in its scope. Josie is easily one of the most amazing young long-form essayists in the country. In between evocatively presenting autobiography and political analysis, she dropped three sentences that made music out of American Presidential noise. “Listen,” she wrote, “I am a firm believer that in a country like America you should vote for your opponent. Who do you want to fight against for the next eight years? Who do you want to push left?” The piece, like most of Josie’s writing, welcomes us in, cares for us and asks everything of us when we leave. I can’t share this piece enough. Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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Below, our favorite stories of the week.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox. Read more…

Longreads Best of 2016: Food Writing

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We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in food writing.

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Rachel Khong
Former executive editor at Lucky Peach magazine; author of the novel, Goodbye, Vitamin, forthcoming in July 2017, and the cookbook, All About Eggs.

Citizen Khan (Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker)

I would read anything by Kathryn Schulz, and this story makes a perfect case why. Ostensibly it’s the story of a man named Zarif Khan, who in 1909 found his way to Wyoming from the Khyber Pass, and made a name for himself selling tamales (the name: “Hot Tamale Louie”). Khan was a recognizably curmudgeonly chef (God forbid you put ketchup on his burgers!) of the sort writers reliably profile today. But “profile” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what this goosebump-inducing story is. Woven into this tale are captivating tangents—about Wyoming’s inclusive beginnings, the various histories of naturalization (and denaturalization), tamales, and Muslims in this country (a history that goes back so much further than Trump would have you believe)—that turn out not to be tangents at all: the heart of this story about tamales and burgers is a story about America, and the immigrants that make it. In Schulz’s hands it’s skilled and quietly hilarious. The story felt fitting when it was published in June; it feels even more essential now.

At Tampa Bay Farm-to-Table Restaurants, You’re Being Fed Fiction (Laura Reiley, Tampa Bay Times)

I read this story about food fraud slack-jawed. Laura Reiley’s basic premise is this: when you go to a restaurant advertising “local” or “farm to table,” it’s not only possible but highly likely(!) you’re being lied to. Years of working in restaurant criticism made Reiley rightly skeptical of menu claims, and suspicious that more was afoot than frozen cakes passed off as homemade. For her story she systematically investigates restaurants in the Tampa area that make declarations about their ingredients—sometimes embarrassingly high-mindedly—that they don’t exactly see through. A lot impresses me here, like Reiley’s persistence, guts, attentiveness, commitment, and spy moves (she kept ziptop baggies her purse to secrete away fish to lab-test later). The piece’s focus is on restaurants in Tampa, but it makes a broader statement about our convoluted food supply chains, and what it means to be an eater and consumer living in our increasingly weird world. Read more…

Longreads Best of 2016: Sports Writing

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We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in sports writing.

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Erik Malinowski
NBA/features writer at Bleacher Report.

The Art of Letting Go (Mina Kimes, ESPN The Magazine)

Whereas another writer might’ve taken this story’s central question—how (and why) Koreans have elevated bat flips in baseball to an art form that deserves celebration—and answered it with condescension or (at best) superficiality, Kimes goes above and beyond, taking readers on a swirling journey across South Korea, through stadium dugouts and Seoul’s inner-city neighborhoods, to produce a compelling narrative that is part sports, part travelogue, and as illuminating a culture piece as you’ve read all year. Between Kimes’ words (which are a masterclass in scene-setting) and the wondrous illustrations of Mickey Duzyj (who was along for the reporting), this was a story I kept seeing in my head all year long.

The Official Coming-Out Party (Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN The Magazine)

Bill Kennedy was living his childhood dream of being an NBA referee when his world was upended last December: A star player yelled two anti-gay slurs at him during a televised game. Kennedy’s open secret—that he was, in fact, gay—was now quite public and on its way to becoming a national story.
With empathy and a deft touch, Arnovitz details what happened that night, what preceded it, and (perhaps most importantly) what followed in the months ahead, as Kennedy’s coming out became a national story and sent the veteran referee on a personal journey that was decades in the making. (The kicker, which takes place at New York’s LGBT Pride March, is stirring and sensational.) When this new season tipped off, Kennedy became the first openly gay player or referee to appear in an NBA game. What Arnovitz so brilliantly conveys is the scope of all that had to happen for that moment to finally become real. Read more…