EDITORS' NOTE: Welcome! Next week, we will be back in charge of the newsletter after a summer full of guest editor turns that we hope you have enjoyed as much as we have. We've already heard from many of you recently about this little experiment, and we'd love to hear from the rest of our readers this week, whether you love it, hate it, or want to suggest how to change it. But in the mean time, we are honored to introduce our next guest, award-winning writer Rich Cohen.
Rich has written several nonfiction bestsellers, and we could not recommend his most recent book, The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones, more highly. He's also a contributor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone and a co-creator of the HBO series Vinyl. After spending the week immersed in longform journalism, Rich has come back with something for everyone among his crop of picks. First though, he was nice enough to contribute a few words on his writing philosophy....
When I signed my first contract to write for Rolling Stone magazine way back a million years ago, and I guess this was in the early 90s and I was just old enough to drive, my editor told me that the mission of the magazine was to take the reader places the reader otherwise could not go—backstage, into the dressing room, onto the tour bus, etc. As the 90s turned into the Aughts, I watched as the reasoning behind this mission was eroded, first by reality TV, then by YouTube, tiny cameras, social media. By 2006, when Twitter came along, there was seemingly no place a computer with good WiFi could not take you.
For a writer of non-fiction it presented a challenge, even a crisis. I came to think of it as akin to the crisis faced by painters when photography came in. Since time out of mind, the job of the painter had been to capture and order the world, preserve the places and people and battle scenes and animal carcasses and fuzzy peaches for posterity. Suddenly, and just like that, any fool with a Kodak could do the same work in one/one-thousandth the time and none of the effort. What was left for a man in a beret? Out of this, and I am on my own, so please, don’t challenge me, came the plunge into abstraction. “Well, yeah, you can get the houses, and the diplomats at the conference table, but can you get the way it feels when you’ve fallen into the rose bushes?” Over time, some painters insisted the image did not matter at all—all that mattered was the paint itself, the energy of application, “let’s see you do that with a Nikon.”
A magazine writer was left to ask: what is there for me to do? It can’t be about taking you backstage, because it’s all in the cloud. It can’t be about digging up and collating odd statistics, because you can search all that in an instant. So I put together my own homemade philosophy of non-fiction writing. It would not be about what happened, or not only about what happened. It would be about what it meant and how it felt. And it would be done with a kind of energy that would be akin to the energy of those panicked brushstrokes. And that’s what I usually look for in a piece of writing. Not just what happened, but what it means and where it goes and who am I and why I am here? You don’t find it everywhere, or every week, but every now and then …
OK. This piece is a tour de force, a trip through the biography and beliefs of everyone of the 16 candidates Trump beat out to get the Republican nomination. It answers the question, “How did Trump win?” It paints a devastating picture of our public life. And it’s funny as hell, an effect achieved merely by stating what people believe, which is, at times, unbelievable.
This piece takes as a starting point the hatred directed at Hillary Clinton, then breaks down and analyzes this hatred as a clinician might analyze the origins of a tropical sprue. In the end, the bad feeling for a person who is probably our next president has to do less with pants suits or speaking fees, according to Berman, than with social movements and the change the Clintons have represented since the 1970s. When George McGovern fell in a landslide in 1972, the young people in that movement scattered. Some went to small college towns, some became sandals-wearing professors, some cut their hair and began to climb the corporate ladder. The Clintons headed to Arkansas, where they continued their quest, only now in incremental, policy by policy steps. It worked, but also pissed off just about everyone.
This piece reads like an old fashioned New Yorker story of “Letter From” variety. In this case, you’d title it “Letter From A Small Island.” About England post-Brexit, it meanders in the way of one of those classic New Yorker pieces—I’m thinking of Alastair Reid’s letters from the Dominican Republic. Its devastating points about a world in which everyone is walled off, inside their nation, inside their identity, grow out of the personal life of the writer.
Geoff Dyer is one of those writers, you’re pretty much going to want to read everything he does. Even when it’s bad, some of it’s good. And this piece is good all through. It’s about a picture taken of Kerouac at that crucial moment. He still had it though he must have known it was already slipping away. It’s sad in the way only a writer writing about a writer can be sad. We turn everything into a mirror.
Every British rock star I have interviewed, and here I am thinking of the icons of the first British Invasion, McCartney, Clapton, Richards, speaks of the same critical moment. Lying in bed some dark night in bombed-out bleak and broke post-war England when, over America’s Armed Forces Radio, comes the first echoes of “Heartbreak Hotel,” Elvis in full rockabilly with the great (recently deceased) Scotty Moore playing guitar behind him. In a moment your life changed, and you knew what you wanted, your internal clocks set to Rock 'n Roll. Randy Boswell tells the story of this song, and the man behind it, the small time bank crook who first spoke of “walking down lonely street.”
This is a tough one to describe. It’s a long rumination, written in Mailer style, that is, in the third person, with the author seeing himself as a character in a book. It’s about America in the age of social media and identity politics. Beautifully done, even if you don’t agree. And melancholy. My father used to complain that his generation, the Korean war Generation, got squeezed and skipped. Between the Greatest Generation and the Boomers. “We never had a president.” It’s been a little like that for Generation X—between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials—and the sadness of that realization rings through the piece. It’s torment for a young man to suddenly feel old.
I profiled Howard Stern for for Rolling Stone over a decade ago. Even then, you could tell he was moderating, time was smoothing the edges, turning him into a mensch. This story captures Stern on the far shore, still anarchic and crazy but empathetic in a way only life can make you.
Mishra is a great writer—his book on Buddhism is one of my favorites—and this piece is pitched into his wheelhouse, as Harry Caray would say. The work of the cranky philosopher is a new lens on our current era.
A great piece about a father of the American park system, John Muir. It begins with an exclamation that now tops my list of something to say when random or not-so-random injury befalls. It used to be the words shouted by Nancy Kerrigan when whacked by Tonya’s goons: Why me? Now it’s the words spoken by Muir when a hunk of metal, flung from a machine, sank into his face: “My right eye is gone, closed forever on God’s beauty!”
How would your story read if told by one of your children? It’s a thought that sobers you up fast. Here the telling is being done by the son of Joe McGinniss, author of huge bestsellers including Fatal Vision. One take away: Being a writer sucks. Choose something else. Of course, the beauty of the piece tells a different story.
We can easily imagine Molly Ivins putting Donald Trump on a spit and roasting him if she were still alive. This unsentimental profile catches Ivins at her peak, reminding us of the cleansing power of invective and humor in political writing. (Bonus fact: We learn that Ivins had a dog named Shit.)
She had already made it through one last night alone under the freeway bridge, through the vomiting and shakes of withdrawal, through cravings so intense she’d scraped a bathroom floor searching for leftover traces of heroin. It had now been 12 days since the last time Amanda Wendler used a drug of any kind, her longest stretch in years. “Clear-eyed and sober,” read a report from one drug counselor, and so Amanda, 31, had moved back in with her mother to begin the stage of recovery she feared most.
QUOTATION OF THE WEEK:
"There's always a guy.”
—My co-author and friend, the movie producer Jerry Weintraub, who died a year ago.
For the great life, but also for the best parenthetical since Humbert Humbert described his mother’s death (picnic, lightning): (According to the band’s website, its keyboardist, Allen Lanier, added the umlaut to Öyster)
One strange week, Bill Murray appeared on SCTV. This would be like DiMaggio playing for the Red Sox. In that spirit, here is Murray as DiMaggio, so good because so true. I met DiMaggio a few times. This is pretty much exactly what he was like.
TIM TORKILDSON'S SUNDAYLIMERICK
From The New York Times: Chelsea Clinton May Be Willing to Lend a Hand if Her Mother Wins
Old family hands have gravitated toward a typical Clintonian solution should the former president find himself as first gentleman in 2017: Perhaps the first daughter could help.
There was a young woman named Chelsea who thought that she might like to sightsee
her old stomping grounds
where she made the rounds
while daddy had been making whoopee.
Tim Torkildson is a retired circus clown. His work has appeared in The New York Times and The Huffington Post. He is currently re-inventing the limerick, one anapest at a time.
Founder, Curator: Don Van Natta Jr. Producer, Curator: Jacob Feldman Senior Editor of Recycling: Jack Shafer Senior Limerick Editor: Tim Torkildson
Contributing Editors: Bruce Arthur, Alex Belth, Sara Blask, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Chris Cillizza, Rich Cohen, Pam Colloff, Maureen Dowd, Brett Michael Dykes, Maggie Haberman, Reyhan Harmanci, Jena Janovy, Bomani Jones, Mina Kimes, Tom Lamont, Jonathan Martin, Betsy Fischer Martin, Ana Menendez, Kevin Merida, Eric Neel, Anne Helen Petersen, S.L. Price, Albert Samaha, Bruce Schoenfeld, Joe Sexton, Dan Shanoff, Ben Smith, Wright Thompson, Pablo Torre, John A. Walsh, and Seth Wickersham
Header image: Don Cravans/Getty
You can read more about our staff, and contact us (we'd love to hear from you!) on our website: SundayLongRead.com. Help pick next week's selections by tweeting us your favorite stories with #SundayLR.