Before we introduce this week’s esteemed guest editor, I (Don) would like to offer a shameless plug for the latest installment of our ESPN investigative docuseries, BACKSTORY, which premieres on ESPN today.
“BANNED FOR LIFE*” tells the story of Major League Baseball’s two most infamous and enduring villains—“Shoeless” Joe Jackson and Pete Rose—and the view of them now as MLB embraces legalized gambling and profits in myriad ways from it. The episode includes my interviews with Pete Rose, former MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent, former MLB special counsel John Dowd, “Eight Men Out” writer/director John Sayles and Black Sox scholars Charles Fountain and Jacob Pomrenke, among others. In August, the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox will play a regular season game at the “Field of Dreams” movie site in Dyersville, Iowa, where the 1989 film transformed Shoeless Joe from a largely forgotten villain into a sympathetic figure. Already, there is fresh hope that Shoeless Joe may, finally, get a plaque in the Hall of Fame, amid a debate about how the Hall should handle banned players, especially after they die.
Our 60-minute Backstory episode premieres at 3 pm ET today on ESPN and re-airs tonight at 9 pm ET on ESPN. Yes, we’re going up against the NFL’s conference championship games but that’s what DVRs were made for. You can also stream the episode anytime on the ESPN app and ESPN+.
Everyone on Team Backstory is proud of this one. I hope you’ll make time to see it.
I am a journalist who also practices criticism. Or am I a critic who also practices journalism? Or am I just a writer with no specific role or genre? I prefer the last one, since I think I do a little of all of the above. Criticism involves a prolonged engagement with a certain cultural form, judging something new against old knowledge and preferences. Journalism involves jumping into a perhaps hitherto-unfamiliar topic, doing the legwork, talking to other people, and telling a story. Writing, I guess, is just describing things, having fun, making something good for readers.
I was thinking about the differences because this seemed to be a week of criticism that moved between genres. Critic and novelist (see the labels?) Lauren Oyler wrote a firey takedown of New Yorker journalist and critic Jia Tolentino’s essay collection, Trick Mirror, in London Review of Books. Critic Jennifer Schaffer also wrote what we might call a slightly mixed review of New Yorker journalist Anna Wiener’s memoir of working in the tech industry, Uncanny Valley, in The Baffler. These aren’t features, exactly, but they’re lengthy pieces of writing that leverage knowledge, research, and experience into expansive criticism.
For a long time, I didn’t really know what a review was, even as a professional writer. My family didn’t subscribe to Harper’s. I had a vague idea of someone with a monocle, Roger Ebert giving a thumbs-down. It turns out a review, like most writing, can be whatever you want it to be. Sometimes I think of them as a kind of internal reporting: you are gauging your own feelings and presenting them to the world. The job is to feel clearly and honestly, then write clearly and honestly.
That’s what strikes me about both of these pieces. Schaffer uses her own experience working in the tech industry to compare and contrast with Wiener’s. Schaffer is disappointed that the book doesn’t follow through on the ambivalence she also felt, avoids applying “the sharp end of the knife.” Oyler, a writer in Tolentino’s young-writer milieu, is familiar with the sharp end of the knife. Her criticism asks for better criticism from Tolentino, or criticism better mingled with journalism and memoir. Whether you agree with her or not, the result is breathtaking.
That’s all to say, maybe we should have more longform criticism, and take it more seriously as such.
Speaking of critics, Alex Ross, the classical music critic for The New Yorker, reports here on very, very old, very unlikely trees. His critic’s fluency with description comes to the fore in the way he evokes the various specimens he encounters and the scientists he joins.
Celebrities aren’t accessible anymore? Well, sometimes they are. Gabriella embeds with Diplo as the DJ and producer does his job, which is grueling: the “nonstop pursuit of the next thing and the next thing and the next thing after that.” I’ll read any profile of Gaby’s, but her Diplo obsession makes this one as extra as its subject.
Do I care about any story besides an infamous auto executive getting smuggled out of house arrest and escaping the incredibly rigorous Japanese court system by hiding in a music equipment case? No. Obviously, Bloomberg gets all the juicy details and intricate plotting to make the plan happen. It’s a heist story but for a human.
I know I mentioned it already, but Schaffer’s essay deserves its own look. I would read her memoir too. She’s particularly cutting in describing how Silicon Valley injects its own slick ideology through technology we all use: “Without realizing it, I had outsourced an entire part of my brain.”
Sutton is another critic who is also kind of a reporter: I feel like he’s always out in the world, asking questions, hunting down both food and answers. This piece comprehensively breaks down a rather incomprehensible trend.
Brian Cox gives good interviews. This reads like a journalist’s dream: a subject so charismatic and voicey that he’s even fascinating over the phone. And, a scoop in the headline! The profile covers everything from HBO’s hit “Succession” to cannabis to interior decorating.
Media inside-baseball, but a story we should all care about. The New York Times is going through a slow-motion schism that involves the question of what journalism should be. The chief of the Times’ Opinion desk, James Bennet, is seen as being in line for the paper’s top job; will he further blur news and opinion?
Novelist Garth Greenwell’s critical essay on the poet begins with the best description of a Keith Haring painting I’ve ever seen, a poetic visual reading: “a work of terror in the face of desire itself, which both exalts and deforms us.”
Museums are like storage for history. So what happens when people start questioning that history and the museums that codify it? We have to revise the presentation. Hochschild visits the new expansion of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium to see the process in action.
The Guardian has a real thing for food stories (remember that sandwich feature?). This one recounts how potato chips went from a few boring flavors to a litany like: truffle, pink peppercorn gin, baked camembert, masala chicken, brie, Aberdeen Angus beef, salted caramel, katsu curry and sriracha.
Pharoah Sanders is one of the YouTube algorithm’s gifts to me; I probably wouldn’t have encountered his spacey, ambient, but also noisy jazz otherwise. In this interview, Sanders talks about his own practice as well as playing with John Coltrane: “He always had some kind of a way of looking to the future, like a kaleidoscope.”
Birdie By Lauren Groff for The Atlantic (~30 minutes)
Lauren Groff’s short stories have a way of combining brutality with beauty — not violence per se but a hard-edged vision of the world. Media-wise, the news here is that The Atlantic is publishing more short stories, which is good for all of us.
Why did Barry Bonds, the most gifted baseball player of his era, cheat? Like the Houston Astros, being great wasn't enough for him. He wanted to be the greatest and was prepared to sign any pact that would make it so. Ben McGrath pops open the cheating sportman's skull for a peek and reports back.
Classic Read curator Jack Shafer writes about media for Politico.
I’m considering turning this slot into a place exclusively for podcast episodes that I didn’t anticipate would make me cry. That’s one of my favorite micro-genres: the unexpectedly emotional. Anyway, this is a prime example. Semisonic’s “Closing Time” is a massive hit, a tad cheesy, and I assumed this episode would be fairly straightforward fare. Not even close. This left me weeping on my couch, and still chokes me up when I just think about it.
Jody Avirgan is a podcast host and producer, most recently with 30 for 30 Podcasts and FiveThirtyEight. You can find his work and newsletter at jodyavirgan.com.
Standing out amid a field of ghostly gray, ash-covered images transmitted from the Philippines this past week, the painterly photograph by Manila-based documentary photographer Ezra Acayan on Jan. 12 was a striking, dramatic display of the Taal volcano eruption, which forced thousands of people to flee and shut down the international airport. Shooting for Getty Images, Acayan used the ash-filtered sunlight like a soft box. The natural light, diffused by the volcano’s massive plume of ash and steam, softened everything in its path, muting the reflections bouncing off of the lake’s water, the boat and the onlookers’ umbrellas. The result is a photograph that makes us all awestruck witnesses to nature’s mighty power.
Patrick Farrell, the curator of The Sunday Still, is the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winner for Breaking News Photography for The Miami Herald, where he worked from 1987 to 2019. He is currently a Lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Media Management at the University of Miami School of Communication.
Someone I work with said, "Of course you'd like this movie" and of course I would: I like a lot of war movies. I wrote a whole book about war. What separates this film from others is the camera's perspective. It stays tight on the British soldier trying to carry out his almost hopeless mission. The whole movie appears as a single shot, going only where the soldier goes. The technical prowess this required will win director Sam Mendes an Oscar, but the approach does something else too: It keeps the story tense and visceral. The perspective is singular. What the soldier sees, we see. This first-person point of view imbues the whole movie with a you-are-there quality that's rivaled only by the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan.
Such a narrow lens might under another director give the film a cramped and hunched feel, and while there are moments of claustrophobia, 1917 is majestic. The nighttime firefight is perhaps the most gorgeous scene I've ever watched. The story itself never tries to rival the cinematography: It stays simple and direct and true. Mendes and the cast and crew should revel in what they've created. This movie will be watched for decades.
Paul Kix is a best-selling author, an editor, and the host of the podcast, Now That's a Great Story, where novelists, journalists, screenwriters and songwriters talk about their favorite work, the one that reveals their artistic worldview. For insights from writers that go beyond what's covered in the podcast, like the entry above, please sign up for Paul's newsletter.
A new academic paper by Steffen Kunn and two other co-authors tackles the relationship between indoor air quality and cognitive performance. Using data from chess tournaments, the authors' results "show that poor indoor air quality hampers cognitive performance significantly." Specifically, the authors find that "an increase in the indoor concentration of fine particulate matter...increases a player’s probability of making an erroneous move by 26.3%."
Sunday Esoterica curator Ryan Rodenberg works as a professor at Florida State University, where he teaches research methods and sports law. He writes a lot of academic articles and some mainstream pieces too.
Superstar novelist Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale, for starters) has made her love of comics well known, even dipping her toe into the medium to craft the beloved ANGEL CATBIRD superhero series for Dark Horse Comics. But this essay in The New Yorker delves deeper into Atwood’s own #comicbookdna, specifically, her love for the Little Lulu comic strip— and why the work still resonates for her today.
Alex Segura is an acclaimed author, a comic book writer written various comic books, including The Archies, Archie Meets Ramones, and Archie Meets KISS. He is also the co-creator and co-writer of the Lethal Lit podcast from iHeart Radio, which was named one of the Five Best Podcasts of 2018 by The New York Times. By day, Alex is Co-President of Archie Comics. You can find him at www.alexsegura.com.
Founder, Editor: Don Van Natta Jr. Producer, Editor: Jacob Feldman Producer, Junior Editor: Étienne Lajoie Senior Recycling Editor: Jack Shafer Senior Photo Editor: Patrick Farrell Senior Music Editor: Kelly Dearmore Senior Podcast Editor: Jody Avirgan Senior Editor of Esoterica: Ryan M. Rodenberg Senior Originals Editor: Peter Bailey-Wells Sunday Comics Editor: Alex Segura
Digital Team: Nation Hahn, Nickolaus Hines, Megan McDonell, Alexa Steinberg Podcast Team: Peter Bailey-Wells, Cary Barbor, Julian McKenzie, Jonathan Yales Webmaster: Ana Srikanth Campus Editor: Peter Warren
Contributing Editors: Bruce Arthur, Shaun Assael, Nick Aster, Alex Belth, Sara J. Benincasa, Jonathan Bernstein, Sara Blask, Greg Bishop, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Maria Bustillos, Kyle Chayka, Chris Cillizza, Doug Bock Clark, Anna Katherine Clemmons, Stephanie Clifford,Rich Cohen, Jessica Contrera, Jonathan Coleman, Pam Colloff, Bryan Curtis, Maureen Dowd, Charles Duhigg, Brett Michael Dykes, Geoff Edgers, Jodi Mailander Farrell, Hadley Freeman, Lea Goldman, Michael N. Graff, Megan Greenwell, Justine Gubar, Maggie Haberman, Reyhan Harmanci, Virginia Heffernan, Matthew Hiltzik, Jena Janovy, Bomani Jones, Chris Jones, Peter Kafka, Paul Kix, Mina Kimes, Peter King, Michael Kruse, Tom Lamont, Edmund Lee, Chris Lehmann, Will Leitch, Jon Mackenzie, Glynnis MacNicol, Drew Magary, Erik Malinowski, Jonathan Martin, Betsy Fischer Martin, Jeff Maysh, Jack McCallum, Susan McPherson, Ana Menendez, Kevin Merida, Heidi N. Moore, Kim Morgan, Eric Neel, Joe Nocera, Ashley R. Parker, Anne Helen Petersen, Jo Piazza, Joe Posnanski, S.L. Price, Jennifer Romolini, Julia Rubin, Albert Samaha, Bob Sassone, Bruce Schoenfeld, Michael Schur, Joe Sexton, Ramona Shelburne, Jacqui Shine, Alexandra Sifferlin, Rachel Sklar, Dan Shanoff, Ben Smith, Adam Sternbergh,Matt Sullivan, Wright Thompson, Pablo Torre, Kevin Van Valkenburg, Nikki Waller, John A. Walsh, Seth Wickersham, Karen Wickre and Dave Zirin.
Contributor in memoriam: Lyra McKee 1990-2019
Header Image: Olga Mikh Fedorova, Protection. 2019
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.