What I Learned by Reading 31 Longreads in 31 Days

Now that I’ve wrapped up my 31 Longreads in 31 Days challenge, here are some thoughts, observations, and takeaways from the experience.

1. Longform nonfiction is alive and well

With the collapse of the magazine industry and the shrinking newspaper business, many have suggested that longform nonfiction feature writing is a dying genre, with business models favoring shorter, “web-friendly” content.

But I kept finding evidence to the contrary. Magazines may be vanishing, but other sources are taking their place. I found excellent longform nonfiction stories at places that didn’t exist a few years ago, such as Buzzfeed, Grantland, and SBNation. Smaller publications like Seattle’s The Stranger and Dallas’ D Magazine had two of the best stories I read.

I wrote up 31 stories, but I read twice that many last month. Some stories were disappointing. Others just didn’t seem a good fit. Some I couldn’t finish. But I never lacked for options. I wound up with dozens of other fine longreads I didn’t get to. I could have I made it 365 longreads in 365 days, and still left plenty unread.

To find a wealth of fine stuff to read, my three favorite starting points are longform.org, longreads.com, and byliner.com.

2. There’s no substitute for a great story; but it takes a great writer to tell it well

Some of the pieces I read were clearly driven by an incredible underlying story: the fight for the life of Kelley Benham’s four-month-premature baby; Bill Fong’s shot at perfection; the deadly tornado that ripped through Utica, Illinois. But it took skillful, smart writing to elevate each of these articles into something memorable. Dry news stories could have been written about any of these subjects, but instead, the stories used the power of classic storytelling techniques: scene, character, point of view, and vivid, concrete details to bring each of these narratives to life.

On the other hand…

3. Great nonfiction stories can take something seemingly ordinary and mine it for rich, complex ideas

In contrast to #4… some of the best work I read focused on topics that were relatively mundane, but explored them to reveal depth and meaning. Nick Paumgarten looked at the issue of commuting and explored its cultural, sociological, and personal impact. Eli Saslow’s look at the day in the life of a Virginia pool salesman told a broader story about the struggling American middle class and the ongoing economic recession. Malcolm Gladwell looked at the unlikely success of a pre-teen girls basketball team in California and connected it with broader ideas about underdogs and insurgent campaigns.

4. It’s the scenes, stupid.

When I look back at all 31 stories, a common element in almost every one was the use of scenes; a dramatic moment (or moments) that revealed a lot about the subjects and themes of the stories and provided the dramatic context for larger ideas and themes. Regardless of the topic or the writing style, great scenes anchored these narratives and elevated them from the page.

5. Reading apps are awesome

If you’re not already using Pocket, Readability, or Instapaper, you should. I used to lug around stacks of articles and magazines in my bookbag; no more. Reading apps make it simple to collect articles to read and sync them across multiple devices, as well as make them easier and more enjoyable to read on small screens. I traveled a lot during December, and being able to keep dozens of stories on-hand without printing anything out was extemely helpful. My only gripe with all of these is that none of them offer a way to annotate stories. I’d love to see that feature in 2013.

While I’m at it, one new tool I’ve started to use is readlists.com: add in a bunch of links to stories you want to read and it will create a single .epub file to read on your kindle, ipad, or mobile phone. For starters, he’re a readlist I’ve created with my 10 favorite longreads from the 31 I read in December. You can grab it can put it on your favorite e-reader or tablet.

6. The New Yorker is still the best starting place to look for longform nonfiction

I found incredible work in GQ, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, and a wide range of smaller publications. But again and again, I kept finding myself digging into longform stories from the New Yorker. As a designer, the magazine kills me; it looks like something for an old granny in Vermont. But week after week it delivers smart, thoughtful features and profiles that run the gamut of longform nonfiction. I can barely keep up with my subscription — I have a pile of unread New Yorkers in my office — but when I can steal the time to dig through them, I am rarely disappointed.

Speed Round:

7. Writers whose work I most want to emulate:
Nick Paumgarten. Malcolm Gladwell. Gary Smith. Gene Weingarten.

8. Writers whose work I admire like hell, but could never hope to replicate:
Julie Keller. Mike Sager. Kelley Benham. Tom Junod.

9. The best thing I read in 2012:
Never Let Go. Kelley Benham’s story is moving, thoughtful, beautiful, and extremely well written. Read it.

30

Dec

“Atonement” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 29)

There is a simplicity to Dexter Filkins’ Atonement in the October 29, 2012 issue of The New Yorker: a company of Marines got into a firefight and wound up killing a number of civilians, including many members of the Kachadoorian family. Ten years later, one of the men in that company tries to find them to try and express his sorrow and regret over what he did.

Nora and Margaret Kachadoorian

Photo by Andrea Bruce for The New Yorker

The opening to “Atonement” is brilliant. In the opening paragraph, the reader immediately understands who the key person in the story is, what happened in Iraq, and gets a clear, visceral sense of the horror of that night:

Almost every night was like this. Lobello couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop thinking about his time in Iraq. Around San Diego, he’d see a baby—in a grocery store, in a parking lot—and the image would come back to him: the blood-soaked Iraqi infant, his mother holding him aloft by one foot. “Why did you shoot us?’’ the woman demanded over and over. Other times, Lobello would see a Mercedes—a blue or white one, especially—and he’d recall the bullet-riddled sedan in the Baghdad intersection, the dead man alongside it in the street, the elderly woman crying in broken English, “We are the peace people! We are the peace people!” He’d remember that the barrel of his machine gun was hot to the touch.

The story introduces the reader first to Lobello, then, second, to Nora and Margaret Kachadoorian, who survived the gunfire that killed most of their family. And then it moves towards a possible meeting between all three, whose lives were irrevocably changed that night in 2003.

Lobello’s struggles and unresolved guilt make him a sympathetic figure in the story, but the morality of his actions remain murky and gray. Filkins includes a quote midway through the story is revealing and troubling:

Lobello had only the vaguest idea how many Iraqis they had killed and wounded; he could remember only the frenzy of it, the terrifying thrill, the streams of bullets going in. “A lot of times, I think what happened was, somebody would realize, Fuck, dude, we’re not shooting the right people. But it was like the beast was already going. You can’t say hold on, stop, wait—no way. No way. You can say, ‘Cease fire. Cease fucking fire!’ Well, fuck, all right, man, but let me get off a couple more rounds. It’s like having sex with a woman, and she’s saying, ‘Let’s stop right now.’ You can’t. You’re in it.”

It’s clear from many accounts of the incident during the story that panic and confusion played a large role in what happened, but Lobello’s description sounds like he is comparing it to (and justifying) rape. Lobello’s quote is disturbing, and I wonder if Filkins (or his editors) had reservations about including it in the story… or if they felt ethically obliged to keep it in the piece. Regardless, it is painfully honest and shows the reader a lot about the mindset of the soldiers that night as they opened fire.

Filkins writes small scenes that are rich with telling details. Here, he describes a meeting the Kachadoorians in their home, and in a small paragraph, we get a sense of both their quiet dignity and their ongoing sense of loss:

Nora brought out a tray of tea and lahmajun, the same Armenian dish that Margaret had served me nine years before. A framed photo of the Kachadoorian men—Nicolas, James, and Edmund—stood on a table next to the couch. “Every day when I put my head on my pillow, I remember this sight,” Margaret said, “how my eldest son, Nicky, fell in the street.”

The story is filled with tragedy. It’s also difficult to put down. Will they meet? What will they say if they do? Will a face-to-face meeting help either the family or the solider? The closing pages of the story are tense and riveting. It’s a powerful read you shouldn’t miss.

Read Atonement →

28

Dec

“How David Beats Goliath” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 27)

As I near the end of this 31 Longreads in 31 Days challenge, I’d be remiss if I didn’t focus on at least one story by one of my favorite nonfiction writers, Malcolm Gladwell. I dissected his story on dogfighting a few years ago on this blog. Another impressive Gladwell story is How David Beats Goliath in the May 11, 2009 issue of The New Yorker.

David squares off against Goliath on the battlefield

Gladwell often explores a big idea or concept and weaving it together with various strands of narrative. In this story, he works with a basic argument, that underdogs often have a better chance than you would expect vs. favorites, as long as they are willing to apply unconventional tactics. Effort, not ability, Gladwell argues, is often the key to victory, the equalizer that allows small armies to defeat bigger ones, that lets smaller basketball squads overcome taller, better-shooting squads. To support and explore his idea, he looks at the biblical story of David vs. Goliath, D.E. Lawrence’s attack on the town of Aqaba in 1917, and the unexpected dominance of a girls youth basketball squad in modern day Northern California. Each of these intriguing stories come together to underscore his over-arching point:

When they finally arrived at Aqaba, Lawrence’s band of several hundred warriors killed or captured twelve hundred Turks, and lost only two men. The Turks simply did not think that their opponent would be mad enough to come at them from the desert. This was Lawrence’s great insight. David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability—and substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life, including little blond-haired girls on the basketball court…

Lawrence attacked the Turks where they were weak—the railroad—and not where they were strong, Medina. Redwood City attacked the inbounds pass, the point in a game where a great team is as vulnerable as a weak one. Lawrence extended the battlefield over as large an area as possible. So did the girls of Redwood City. They defended all ninety-four feet. The full-court press is legs, not arms. It supplants ability with effort. It is basketball for those “quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets were movement, endurance, individual intelligence . . . courage.”

What’s great about Gladwell’s work is that he explores ideas and arguments with stories and people. In this piece, he examines the advantages and disadvantages of underdog strategies with not only the three stories mentioned above, but also the example of a 1971 Fordham vs. University Massachusetts NCAA basketball game, the coaching approach of Rick Pitino at Kentucky and Louisville, and the tactics used by a computer programmer to dominate a war gaming simulation tournament in the 1980s. In this story, like so many of his pieces, he uses narrative to set up the arguments he wants to convey to the reader. He ties these examples together gracefully, highlighting common themes and ideas that keep resurfacing.

Here, he shows how David uses the same strategy against Goliath that Fordham University used against highly favored University of Massachusetts thousands of years later:

“And it happened as the Philistine arose and was drawing near David that David hastened and ran out from the lines toward the Philistine,” the Bible says. “And he reached his hand into the pouch and took from there a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead.” The second sentence—the slingshot part—is what made David famous. But the first sentence matters just as much. David broke the rhythm of the encounter. He speeded it up. “The sudden astonishment when David sprints forward must have frozen Goliath, making him a better target,” the poet and critic Robert Pinsky writes in “The Life of David.” Pinsky calls David a “point guard ready to flick the basketball here or there.” David pressed. That’s what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths.

It’s a fine read. Gladwell bookends the article with the unlikely story of the Redwood City girls basketball squad. He starts and ends there, after exploring the historical, philosophical, moral, and physical elements of insurgents and underdogs over the course of human history. Few writers could tackle a topic like this from multiple levels and angles; Gladwell does it in an entertaining, though-provoking way.

Read How David Beats Goliath →

27

Dec

“Looking for Someone” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 26)

I’m an admitted Nick Paumgaten fanboy, already having raved about his story on elevators and, more recently, for this series, his story on commuters. So as I worked through my pile of longreads, I read his 10,300-word examination of online dating: Looking for Someone published in the July 4, 2011 issue of the New Yorker. And it’s another great story.

Match.com splash page

What impresses me the most about this story is the scope of the reporting. A lot of feature writers might look at something like online dating, interview two or three people, collect a few stories and anecdotes, mash it together and call it a day. But by my count, Paumgarten talked to at least 25 people for this story. And that doesn’t include the people he may have interviewed or met, but who didn’t make the final draft of the story. “Looking for Someone” is packed with the voices, ideas, and experiences of more than two dozen people.

Second, as always, Paumgarten weaves together a wealth of research, reporting, and analysis into a flowing narrative: he goes into the history of computer matchmaking and the evolution of online dating; he looks at the psychology and science behind attraction; he examines the sociological and cultural meaning of internet matchmaking; he looks at the business aspects of online dating sites and the CEO’s that drive them; he talks to a lot of people who have used Match.com or eHarmony or OK Cupid; and on top of all of this, he writes his own reflections on what it means:

It is tempting to think of online dating as a sophisticated way to address the ancient and fundamental problem of sorting humans into pairs, except that the problem isn’t very old. Civilization, in its various guises, had it pretty much worked out. Society—family, tribe, caste, church, village, probate court—established and enforced its connubial protocols for the presumed good of everyone, except maybe for the couples themselves. The criteria for compatibility had little to do with mutual affection or a shared enthusiasm for spicy food and Fleetwood Mac. Happiness, self-fulfillment, “me time,” a woman’s needs: these didn’t rate. As for romantic love, it was an almost mutually exclusive category of human experience. As much as it may have evolved, in the human animal, as a motivation system for mate-finding, it was rarely given great consideration in the final reckoning of conjugal choice.

The twentieth century reduced it all to smithereens. The Pill, women in the workforce, widespread deferment of marriage, rising divorce rates, gay rights—these set off a prolonged but erratic improvisation on a replacement. In a fractured and bewildered landscape of fern bars, ladies’ nights, Plato’s Retreat, “The Bachelor,” sexting, and the concept of the “cougar,” the Internet promised reconnection, profusion, and processing power.

I won’t dig deeper into this. Just read it. Another great story…

Read Looking for Someone →

23

Dec

“Battleground America” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 22)

2012 has been a horrifying year for guns: after the shooting of unarmed Trayvon Martin, the massacre at the cineplex in Aurora, Colorado, and the kindergarden shootings in Newtown Connecticut, Americans have refocused on the issue of gun violence.

Travon Martin

Travon Martin, family photo

Battleground America by Jill Lepore in the April 23 New Yorker takes a close look at the issue, underscoring the history and culture surrounding guns and the Second Amendment, as well as exploring the depth of the problem.

What makes Lepore’s story so strong is that it is viscerally close up in parts, but steps back and looks at the matter from a macro and historical level. It shifts between the personal and the policy sides of the story.

And the backbone of the story is the narrative of a single incident of a school shooting at an Ohio High School. As Lepore unravels the history and state of guns and gun violence in America, she dribbles out what happened before, during, and after one of too many gun massacres in America in recent years. With this, the bloody, personal toll of the issue is never lost on the reader, it feels urgent and horrifying:

At Chardon High School, kids ran through the halls screaming “Lockdown!” Some of them hid in the teachers’ lounge; they barricaded the door with a piano. Someone got on the school’s public-address system and gave instructions, but everyone knew what to do. Students ran into classrooms and dived under desks; teachers locked the doors and shut off the lights. Joseph Ricci, a math teacher, heard Walczak, who was still crawling, groaning in the hallway. Ricci opened the door and pulled the boy inside. No one knew if the shooter had more guns, or more rounds. Huddled under desks, students called 911 and texted their parents. One tapped out, “Prayforus.”

Almost as scary as the retelling of some of these incidents is the sheer numbers. She makes clear that this isn’t the problem of a few crazed loners, but a culture of guns and the deep proliferation of firepower across the nation. She lays out the facts about guns in America, putting the evidence on the table like a prosecutor:

There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States: a hundred and six million handguns, a hundred and five million rifles, and eighty-three million shotguns. That works out to about one gun for every American. The gun that T. J. Lane brought to Chardon High School belonged to his uncle, who had bought it in 2010, at a gun shop. Both of Lane’s parents had been arrested on charges of domestic violence over the years. Lane found the gun in his grandfather’s barn.

The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed.

As she delves into the history of the Second Amendment and the National Rifle Association, she, like Adam Winkler in “A Secret History of Guns,” (which I reviewed a week or so ago) she reveals that the notion that every American in entitled to own and carry as many firearms as they’d like is a relatively new idea. Far from the recent arguments from the N.R.A. that the Constitution has made gun ownership sacrosanct since the the founding of the nation, she shows that American mania for personal gun ownership has really been much more of a recent development, rising most dramatically in the 1970s.

Lepore even goes to a gun education class and takes some shoots at a shooting range herself, to get a sense of how it feels to fire a gun.

But the story keeps coming back to the human cost of guns. The story never veers too far away from the personal nature of the issue. And she does it with writing that is very personal and haunting. She never lets the reader forget how many innocent men and women have been murdered with guns, and that they all had names and lives that ended prematurely:

Here she grimly details one such group of victims:

They had come from all over the world. Ping, twenty-four, was born in the Philippines. She was working at the school to support her parents, her brother, two younger sisters, and her four-year-old son, Kayzzer. Her husband was hoping to move to the United States. Tshering Rinzing Bhutia, thirty-eight, was born in Gyalshing, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. He took classes during the day; at night, he worked as a janitor at San Francisco International Airport. Lydia Sim, twenty-one, was born in San Francisco, to Korean parents; she wanted to become a pediatrician. Sonam Choedon, thirty-three, belonged to a family living in exile from Tibet. A Buddhist, she came to the United States from Dharamsala, India. She was studying to become a nurse. Grace Eunhea Kim, twenty-three, was putting herself through school by working as a waitress. Judith Seymour was fifty-three. Her parents had moved back to their native Guyana; her two children were grown. She was about to graduate. Doris Chibuko, forty, was born in Enugu, in eastern Nigeria, where she practiced law. She immigrated in 2002. Her husband, Efanye, works as a technician for A.T. & T. They had three children, ages eight, five, and three. She was two months short of completing a degree in nursing.

Ping, Bhutia, Sim, Choedon, Kim, Seymour, and Chibuko: Goh shot and killed them all. Then he went from one classroom to another, shooting, before stealing a car and driving away. He threw his gun into a tributary of San Leandro Bay. Shortly afterward, he walked into a grocery store and said, “I just shot some people.”

This won’t be the last lengthly examination of guns we’ll see, especially in the light of the Newtown tragedies, but it will still be one of the most comprehensive and well-written stories on the issue.

Read Battleground America →

16

Dec

“The Lost City of Z” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 16)

There are longreads. And then there are long longreads. And then there are epic, holy-f@#king-shit longreads that just leave you blown away.

The Lost City of Z,” by David Grann in the September 19, 2005 issue of The New Yorker fits into that last category.

Percy Fawcett

Photo of explorer Percy Fawcett; source unknown

At just over 20,000 words, “The Lost City of Z” tells a sprawling story than spans more than a century, centered around British explorer Percy Fawcett — a real-world Indiana Jones — who ventured into the Amazon forest in 1925, searching for ruins of the fabled “City of Z,” a prehistoric civilization he believed to be buried somewhere out in the undiscovered jungle.

The story follows Fawcett’s expedition, which ventured into unmapped parts of the Amazon, never to return; several efforts by other explorers to find Fawcett, or his evidence of his demise; and finally, the author’s journey to Brazil to re-trace Fawcett’s footsteps. Grann tries to solve the mystery of what happened to the explorer, but also, if the City of Z he sought actually existed. It’s a fascinating history, with adventure and suspense across multiple narratives.

There’s so much to love about this story. First off, there’s the massive body of research packed into this piece. There’s so much here that the story was later expanded into a full length book. But in this initial version in The New Yorker, Grann gives us rich details from Fawcett’s own writings, mixed with beautiful description of what they experienced, like this:

Fawcett’s team stayed in Galvão’s red brick manor for several days, eating and resting. At one point, Galvão later told a reporter, Fawcett removed from his belongings a strange object covered in cloth. He carefully unwrapped it, revealing a ten-inch stone idol with almond-shaped eyes and hieroglyphics carved on its chest. Rider Haggard, Fawcett’s friend, had obtained it from someone in Brazil and given it to Fawcett, who believed that it was a relic of Z.

Then the three Englishmen were on their way again, heading east, toward Bakairí Post, where in 1920 the Brazilian government had set up a garrison—“the last point of civilization,” as the settlers referred to it. Occasionally, the dense forest opened up, revealing the blinding sun and blue-tinged mountains in the distance. The trail became harder, and the men descended steep, mud-slicked gorges and crossed rock-strewn rapids, where they had to check their skin for traces of blood, which might attract piranhas. They also had to remain alert for a pernicious eel-like fish called a candiru, which, as Fawcett once wrote, “seeks to enter the natural orifices of the body, whether human or animal, and once inside cannot be extracted.” Fawcett had seen one specimen that had been removed from a man’s penis. “Many deaths result from this fish, and the agony it can cause is excruciating,” he wrote.

Through the historical records, private notes, and correspondence, the 57-year-old Fawcett comes alive in this story as a very human figure.

The subsequent searches for Fawcett and revelations along the way become equally colorful. The explorers who followed Fawcett often met grim fates and gruesome endings. In the middle of the story, we learn that one of his descendants ominously came into possession of Fawcett’s ring, which had been recovered in 1979 by a filmmaker in Brazil:

Montet-Guerin said that she wanted to show me one more thing. It was a photograph of Fawcett’s gold signet ring, which was engraved with the family motto, “Nec Aspera Terrent”—essentially, “Difficulties Be Damned.” In 1979, an Englishman named Brian Ridout, who was making a wildlife film in Brazil, heard rumors that the ring had turned up at a store in Cuiabá. By the time Ridout tracked down the shop, the proprietor had died. His wife, however, searched through her possessions and emerged with Colonel Fawcett’s ring. Montet-Guerin, who had since put the ring in safekeeping, said, “It’s the last concrete item we have from the expedition.”

Montet-Guerin had been desperate to learn more, she said, and had once showed the ring to a psychic. I asked her if she had learned anything. She looked down at the picture, then up at me. “It had been bathed in blood,” she said.

Hollywood couldn’t write that any better.

But the core of the story is really about Grann’s efforts to try and find the lost city Fawcett was searching for at the time he disappeared. Grann slowly unspools two narratives in parallel: the more we learn about Fawcett’s history, the further along Grann advances in his own adventure. In the present day, he retraces Fawcett’s steps just as he reveals details from the historical part of the story.

Grann experiences the conditions first-hand that unraveled so many previous expeditions. As he treks through the jungle himself, he lives through some of the same fear that others faced:

Occasionally, I slipped in the mud, falling in the water. I yelled out Pinage’s name, but there was no response. Exhausted, I found a grassy knoll that was only a few inches below the waterline, and sat down. My pants filled with water as I listened to the frogs. The sun burned my face and hands, and I wiped muddy water on myself in a vain attempt to cool down.

After half an hour, I stood again and tried to find the correct path. I walked and walked; in one spot, the water rose to my waist, and I lifted the bags above my head. Each time I thought that I had reached the end of the mangrove forest, a new swath opened up before me—large patches of tall, damp reeds clouded with mosquitoes, which ate into me.

I won’t spoil anything else here, but suffice it to say: this is an amazing piece of nonfiction: part history, part detective story, part adventure. I’m in awe of the work and research that went into this story. Excellent storytelling and writing bring it all together. Despite this being the longest story I’ve read so far this month, I’d have happily read more.

Read The Lost City of Z” →

12

Dec

“Netherland” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 12)

When I read through the latest issue of The New Yorker, I thought that I might write-up my take on two other longform pieces in the magazine, the profile of Alabama radio host Paul Finebaum or Ken Auletta’s feature on Elisabeth Murdoch. But the story that grabbed me instantly and haunted me after I put it down was Rachel Aviv’s feature on homeless gay, lesbian, and transgender youth in New York City, “Netherland.”

Christopher Street Pier

Photo by Alice Proujansky

The article introduces the reader to this world mostly through the eyes of one young gay woman, “Samantha,” and her experiences on the streets. “Netherland” begins with Samantha’s decision to leave home in Florida and run away to New York. Before she leaves, we learn a lot about her. We learn that she was a straight-A student; she loved to write; she began to realize she was a lesbian when she found herself lusting for Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider; she was molested by a family friend; when she told her parents about the abuse, her mother suggested it was a hallucination.

We also see that, for someone planning to live on the streets in Manhattan, she was quite Type A about her preparations:

In a purple spiral-bound notebook, she created a guide for life on the streets. She listed the locations of soup kitchens, public libraries, bottle-return vending machines, thrift stores, and public sports clubs, where she could slip in for free showers. Under the heading “known homeless encampments,” she wrote down all the parks, boardwalks, and tunnels where she could sleep and the subway line she’d take to get there. Her most detailed entry was a description of an abandoned trai tunnel in Harlem and the name of a photographer who had taken pictures of the homeless people who lived in it. She hoped that if she mentioned the photographer’s name she would be “accepted by the underground society.”

As she sets off to New York, Aviv doesn’t tell Samantha’s story in a manipulative or sentimental way. The story is written in a matter-of-fact and straightforward manner, blending Samantha’s stories with observations and facts about homeless LGBT youth in New York City. It is very revealing and personal, but Aviv doesn’t go for the heartstrings; she reports the story with an even, almost cold detachment. She reports the truth that she finds as she follows Samantha as she moves in and out of homeless LGBT circles.

The reader gets an inside look at homelessness in New York, but also the experience of being gay, young, and homeless. Not surprisingly, Samantha’s life on the streets isn’t as easy as she expects, and she struggles to find food, shelter, and friends she can trust. She finds “family,” but it’s unclear if she can rely on them any more than she relied the family she left behind in Florida. Samantha becomes hardened and savvy to the streets.

In one section, Aviv shares some of the methods Samantha refines for getting the best results when panhandling:

Her favorite place to panhandle was a leafy block of Hudson Street near the Chambers Street subway station, where thousands of professionals converged during rush hour. Samantha noticed that when she looked “stereotypically movie homeless,” wearing ripped sweatpants and a baggy, dirty sweater, she could bring in nearly twice as much as when she wore her usual clothes. Christina helped her come up with a convincing hairdo: two braids, smothered with Vaseline. “I wanted to look as small as possible, like vulnerable,” Samantha said. She sat on a milk crate with her knees drawn to her chest, her arm draped over a pink backpack; she was convinced that the color made her seem more sympathetic.

This isn’t a policy story: it doesn’t suggest any solutions to the growing problem of LGBT homelessness. And it doesn’t offer ideas for how to prevent more girls like Samantha from running away to live a risky, dangerous life on the streets. But it is powerful in revealing a world that few of us know about or understand.

I would love to know how Aviv reported this story: did she spend weeks with Samantha? Days? How much did she see first hand? How much did leave out of the story?

Aviv seems nonjudgmental and detached as she reports on the various subcultures and groups that Samantha encounters. She doesn’t press an ideological or political angle with the story, aside from a general awareness that for thousands of homeless LGBT youth in New York City and countless other American cities, options are few and hope is in very short supply.

The end of this story is ambiguous. In the closing scenes, we see warmth and friendship between Samantha and some old friends. There is reason for optimism about Samantha’s future, but also, a looming sense that it could all crumble away overnight.

One reason this is a great story is that I keep thinking about it; about Samantha and the various friends she meets along the way. A few months or years from now, I’ll probably wonder what happened to her and where she wound up. Aviv’s narrative ends in the middle of Samantha’s story, and the reader is left only to imagine what happens next.

Read Netherland →

[Note: the link to this story goes, unfortunately, to clunky, nightmarish-to-read, paywalled New Yorker site. So if you’re not a subscriber, hopefully you can grab a copy of the December 10 edition of the magazine and check it out. Otherwise, wait a few months from now and it should b available in full text online to nonsubscribers.]

07

Dec

“There and Back Again” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Seven)

There and Back Again,” by Nick Paumgarten for The New Yorker in April 2007, explores the issue of commuting from a wide range of angles: the impact on workers, trade-offs commuters make, and overall trends of sprawl, commuting, and social isolation. It’s an incredible story.

Paumgarten looks at the issue from the perspectives of four long-range commuters, a handful of experts and academics, and a body of historical, sociological, and psychological research on the topic. As with many of his stories, Paumgarten’s work is long, but the length has purpose: he tells a story from a multitude of perspectives and points of view. The story is both wonky and moving at the same time. Few writers can pull that off.

Illustration of a man in a car that is struck in heavy traffic

Illustration by The New Yorker

Nick Paumgarten is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. His stories are always deep, impressively researched, and beautifully written. His story about elevators — Up and Then Down — remains one of the best longform stories I’ve read. He wrote 8000 words on elevators and it was riveting, fascinating stuff.

Given that Paumgarten isn’t a one-hit wonder with “There and Back Again,” I thought I’d dissect the structure of this story a bit here to try and highlight why this story works so well. Here are a few take-aways:

First, Paumgarten constantly moves his writer’s lens in and out throughout the story. He will pull back and look at an issue from a sweeping macro level, then zoom back in very close on one particular subject for several pages, fleshing out his story with a real person, real moments, and personal experiences.

He opens “There and Back Again” with a some broad observations about workers and their commutes to and from work, as if his story was going to be an essay on the subject:

People like to compare commutes, to complain or boast about their own and, depending on whether their pride derives from misery or efficiency, to exaggerate the length or the brevity of their trip. People who feel they have smooth, manageable commutes tend to evangelize. Those who hate the commute think of it as a core affliction, like a chronic illness. Once you raise the subject, the testimonies pour out, and, if your ears are tuned to it, you begin overhearing commute talk everywhere: mode of transport, time spent on train/interstate/treadmill/homework help, crossword-puzzle aptitude—limitless variations on a stock tale. People who are normally circumspect may, when describing their commutes, be unexpectedly candid in divulging the intimate details of their lives. They have it all worked out, down to the number of minutes it takes them to shave or get stuck at a particular light. But commuting is like sex or sleep: everyone lies. It is said that doctors, when they ask you how much you drink, will take the answer and double it. When a commuter says, “It’s an hour, door-to-door,” tack on twenty minutes.

Shortly after this broad take on commuters, though, he zooms in close and introduces Judy Rossi, a legal secretary who has a three hour and fifteen minute commute each way to and from her Manhattan job. Paumgarten tags along with Rossi and travels with her on the daily commute, getting a sense of both the experience and of the person. He talks with her and gets quotes that help us understand her (and countless others like her). He reports little details, what she reads, what she listens to, and what her car smells like:

The train arrived, and we sat down, finally. From the backpack Rossi produced some photographs of her house, her swimming pool, and her granddaughter: her recompense, her consolation. “I keep these pictures above my desk at work,” she said. “Whenever I get fed up, I look at these and say, ‘That’s why I commute.’ ” Her son lives with his wife and two children in a separate house on the lot; unable to endure the same commute, he found a job working for Orange County, half an hour away. The property is surrounded by woods. Deer come and go. In her calculations, such blandishments outweigh the inconveniences and squandered hours.

At Harriman, most of the passengers disembarked, and Rossi removed her coat and put her bag on the floor. She took out her book, a James Patterson hardcover. For an hour, the train rattled through the night. Middletown, Otisville, Port Jervis, the end of the line. With keys in hand, she stepped out onto an open-air platform. The parking lot was part of a larger one abutting a mall. The night was dead-battery cold. “It’s a half hour from here,” she said.

Her car, a Toyota hatchback, smelled of cigarettes and dogs. (Rossi’s dogs—a standard poodle, a pit-lab, and a bichon frise—pass the days indoors.) She put on an oldies station—the Jackson 5 serendipitously singing “I’ll Be There”—and drove along a state road past shopping centers whose varying vintages indicated the advance of rural ruin. We passed a Price Chopper market, where Rossi does her food shopping twice a month. She gave up cooking some years ago.

A second Paumgarten technique: he starts and finishes his stories with people, but packs a lot of more brainy research and boarder thinking in the middle of the story. He often starts an article with a personal story (in this case, the experience of Rossi on her way home), then dives into some research and academic takes on a subject, before shifting back into some additional personal experiences. In the middle section of this story he tackles a lot: the etymology of the word “commuter”; the history of commuting and how Americans got to and from workplaces; comparisons between American commuters and those in other countries; the psychological effects of commuting on workers; the differences between commuters on trains vs. drivers; and the economics of income, real estate prices, and lengths of commutes. His story shifts gears from a personal profile of a New York commuter to a think piece:

Commuting makes people unhappy, or so many studies have shown. Recently, the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and the economist Alan Krueger asked nine hundred working women in Texas to rate their daily activities, according to how much they enjoyed them. Commuting came in last. (Sex came in first.) The source of the unhappiness is not so much the commute itself as what it deprives you of. When you are commuting by car, you are not hanging out with the kids, sleeping with your spouse (or anyone else), playing soccer, watching soccer, coaching soccer, arguing about politics, praying in a church, or drinking in a bar. In short, you are not spending time with other people. The two hours or more of leisure time granted by the introduction, in the early twentieth century, of the eight-hour workday are now passed in solitude. You have cup holders for company.

After all this analysis, he looks at the sprawling, traffic-inflicted city of Atlanta and zooms back in on three commuters there. He captures little moments and details that feel tragic and sobering. And that strikes me as a third technique that Paumgarten uses skillfully: he writes scenes.

His eye for scene is as good as his knack for incisive research. Here are a few illustrative moments:

Scruggs tapped the steering wheel as traffic slowed again. “When you’ve had a long day and then sit in traffic for two hours, you say, I gotta find something else,” he said. “But then when you’re home there’s a reality check. My commute’s no different really from the commutes of people who are coming from the north side, where the cost of living is substantially higher. When you take all the factors into consideration, as frustrated as you get, I’m still not sure whether it’s worth making a move.”

I had talked to one Atlanta commuter who smokes a cigar to stay awake on his drive home each day, and to another who plays harmonica. One commuter began trying a meditation technique—breathe in one nostril and out the other—and got pulled over for speeding. Scruggs favored a more traditional approach. “The key is to eat a light lunch,” he said.

He exited the interstate at 6:06 p.m. “It’s ten or twelve minutes from here,” he said. “Piece of cake.” The road passed by a golf course, a high school, and a series of ranch houses with boats and cars out front, most of them apparently still operational. After a while, he made a right on Kripple Kreek Drive, which led him into a development called Barrington Farms. Home: 6:30 p.m.—one hour and twenty-two minutes. Deep twilight. His house was an off-white clapboard four-bedroom, on a one-acre lot. The kids were out playing on a swing set in the back yard. There was no arrival fanfare: Ulysses, ignored. He tends to see his kids for five minutes in the morning, and an hour in the evenings.

Paumgarten reminds me of an NBA player with an all-around game, the guard who can drive to the basket and score, hit a mid-range jumper, or step outside and unleash a three-point shot. Like a versatile scorer who can bank the ball in with either his left or right hand, he uses statistics and metaphors equally well. When Paumgauten writes from long-range, he does his homework, talks to experts, reads reports, and informs his analysis with a wealth of knowledge. When he gets in close, he writes with an eye for telling details and scenes, using the skills of a good fiction writer. His versatility and hard work are why he’s one of the best nonfiction writers out there.

Read There and Back Again →

06

Jan

The Art of Writing the Tough Profile

Shigeru MiyamotoGay Talese’s famous “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” is a legendary profile for many reasons, perhaps most notably because the iconic singer wouldn’t talk to him directly. Talese nonetheless delivered an incredible profile of Sinatra, without the benefit of a direct interview.

I thought briefly of Talese’s story when I read Nick Paumgarten’s excellent New Yorker profile of Ninendo creative genius Shigeru Miyamoto. What is clear from the story is that Paumgarten actually had very little opportunity to spend time with the elusive Miyamoto. The only scene in which he directly interacts with his subject is in a Nintendo corporate conference room, through the use of a translator.

And yet, Paumgarten still manages to make the most of that limited access. Here’s a snippet of his really effective use of observation, description, and vivid detail:

Miyamoto, dressed in a striped button-down shirt and black pants, regarded me with a wide smile. Up close, I could see that he had freckles and a few gray hairs. His upper lip sticks out a bit, like that of a character in a Matt Groening comic strip. He was carrying a beat-up and bulging old leather diary with a painted, hand-tooled relief of a horse on its cover. A friend had made it for him. It was where he jotted down thoughts and ideas. He said he was very busy: there was a deadline looming for the release of a new handheld device with a 3-D display that requires no 3-D glasses. Also, it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Super Mario, and he was judging a competition in which thousands of players had used a Nintendo program to make and submit their own Mario animations. Miyamoto himself was to narrow these down to fifty finalists.

As Minagawa translated each of my questions, Miyamoto often buried his face in his hands or rubbed his eyes and frowned, as though Minagawa had misheard me and, instead of asking Miyamoto to parse the differences between entertainment and play, was telling him he’d gone broke. But it became clear, once he began talking, animatedly, with extravagant hand gestures and giggles of delight, that the apparent anguish was merely an expression of deep thought, a counterpoint to his ebullience in answering.

Paumgarten makes the most of a very constrained, limited interview. The doesn’t just get Miyamoto’s quotes, but we see him, hear him, and get a sense of his personality. He might be sitting in a boring conference room, but that doesn’t stop Paumgarten from still creating a vivid sense of his subject.

It’s a good reminder that we don’t always have ideal settings or opportunities to interview subjects, but that’s no excuse for doing a bad job telling the story.

16

Nov

Dissecting Gladwell’s take on Football and Dog Fighting

Malcolm GladwellOne of the writers I most admire is Malcolm Gladwell, a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the author of the Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. His insightful writing explores big ideas through deep research and reporting, linking together seemingly disconnected events and ideas. In one piece, he ties together the biblical story of David and Goliath, Lawrence of Arabia, and a girls basketball team in northern California… and it makes sense.

His most recent New Yorker article, “Offensive Play” asks the question “how different are dogfighting and football.” The piece is alarming, fascinating, and effective. It doesn’t just try to provoke the reader with a provocative comparison for the take of being sensationalistic: Gladwell reveals that football, at almost every level, is much more brutal and damaging than most of us fans would like to realize. He doesn’t just make an argument: he tells stories, and builds a case, piece by piece.  Gladwell would have made a fine prosecutor.

Tim Wendel,  one of my mentors at Johns Hopkins, once advised us that when we see an article that blows us away, we should go back and rip the story apart, dissecting it to see how the author put it together and why it works so well.  Wendel described how earlier in his career, he literally cut up good nonfiction magazine stories into chunks of paper and spread those snippets out on a table to study how it all fit together.

So let me briefly do my dissection of “Offensive Play” here.  First here’s a brief outline of the piece:

  • Scene: former NFL player Kyle Turley melts down at a bar
  • Description and background on Turley
  • Turley’s experience isn’t an anomaly: background and description of other NFL players who suffered from similar mental and physical problems after their careers
  • Quotes and more first-hand stories from Turley
  • Shift to background and summary of Michael Vick dogfighting trial and sentencing, followed by his recent reinstatement into the league
  • Background on dogfighting
  • Detailed, graphic description of a dog fight
  • Transition: back from dogfighting to football: what is a “morally acceptable” sport?
  • Shifts to medical research on dementia & Alzheimer’s; physical indications of neurological problems caused by head trauma
  • Introduces researcher who found connections between ex-boxers and ex-football players and brain injuries
  • Introduces second researcher who further found links between football players and high frequencies of neurological disorders; symptoms described echo those of Turley in the opening scene
  • Description of how findings of symptoms match Turley’s breakdown
  • Description of second researcher & her office.  Would she advise her own son to play in the NFL?  She’d tell him no, “Not if you want to have a life after football.”
  • Transition: moving from research of sports injury risks and how other sports handle them. Is the injury risk inherent to the sport, like dogfighting, or can it be reduced?
  • Example of how NASCAR improve safety after death of Dale Earnhardt
  • Background, history on football and long-standing concerns about injury risks
  • Examination of football injury research at UNC; how researchers determine that a routine tackle or a block can be the physical equivalent of being in a car accident
  • Key take-away from UNC research: it’s not just one or two big hits that damage players; it’s the cumulative effect of countless “little” hits as well
  • Also: Helmets can only help so much:  players today are too big, too fast
  • Transition:  back to Vick’s surviving dogs; how the most prized dogs were bred & trained for “gameness” and willingness to fight
  • Transition: linking the “gameness” of dogs to the “gameness” of NFL players;  back to Turley and the pressure to play “all out” despite injuries; anecdotes from final, painful days of his career
  • Transition: Ira Casson, chair of an NFL committee on brain injuries, and the limits of what can be done
  • Closing thought that the sport won’t be changed or eliminated any time soon, as so many fans love the sport, in spite of what it does to the players
  • Echoes his closing thought with a quote from a book on dogfighting that describes the passion of the spectators

The story is just short of 8000 words, but it’s a fast, gripping read.  Why does it work?

First, reporting matters. Gladwell doesn’t just sit at his laptop and argue against the brutality of football and warn that it does lasting damage to players.  Above all else, the story is reported well.  He talks to three medical and science experts, two former football players, a trainer who is trying to rehabilitate Vick’s former dogs, and an expert on the business of NFL football.  He also digs into the history of football, the nature of dog fighting, NASCAR safety issues, and the Michael Vick case.  He can quote both what the NFL commissioner said about Vick and what Teddy Roosevelt said about the sport in 1905.  In short, Gladwell dug through old documents, talked to people, and asked a lot of questions to collect the raw materials for his story.

Second, scenes move the story.  The piece is loaded with science, research data, and historical information, but scenes drive the narrative.  By my count, there are at least twelve scenes in the story, moments that he vividly recreates for the reader.

Third, characters count.  Gladwell doesn’t merely quote the people he interviews; he shows them. The reader gets a vivid idea of what Turley looks and sounds like.  We see researcher McKee’s office, which includes a statuette of Brett Favre on a shelf.  We don’t just hear about Vick’s dogs; Gladwell shows them playing with a trainer in Utah.  All of this humanizes and deepens the story.  The human characters put a face on the scientific, medical side of the story: he uses Turley’s experience as bookends to the piece.

Finally, he shows more than he tells.  Gladwell doesn’t rail against football or dogfighting; rather, he lays out the evidence and the connections and largely lets them speak for themselves.  He closes with the disturbing idea that we hate dogfighting because of the suffering and harm it does to the dogs, but love football, despite the apparent long-term suffering it inflicts on many of its players.  He paints the connections that he discovers, but doesn’t overstep his role and hammer those findings into his audience.

Gladwell leaves the readers in a troubling spot: he doesn’t provide any real solution to the problem, but nonetheless makes the compelling case that the sport is possibly every bit as cruel and harmful as dog fighting.  He shows that the reader complicit in the problem, then leaves them on their own to decide what should happen next.

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.