EDITORS’ NOTE: Happy Sunday, and welcome to The Sunday Long Read 3.0! Our summer project this year was to revamp our newsletter design, prioritizing simplicity and consistency while cleaning up some extraneous bits. Contributions from our peerless set of senior editors are now presented together with the simple look and large photos they've long deserved. In the main list, we hope you'll find it even easier to enjoy the great stories we love sharing. Also, we've brought our color palette more in line with our recently redesigned logo as well as our to-be-unveiled new website (shhhh!!!).
We are still nipping and tucking, and as always we want to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org. (For a late-summer vacation, we'll be off next Sunday. Talk again Sunday, August 26.)
We're thrilled to debut our fresh design with the help of this week’s guest editor, our new pal Joe Nocera, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist who has spent much of his career writing business sagas, starting with this Texas Monthly story in 1982. (Joe tells the story behind that story below.) After his stint in Texas, Joe wrote for New England Monthly, Newsweek, GQ and Esquire, where his 1986 profile of Steve Jobs was named an Esquire Classic three decades later. (Joe talks about that story in this Esquire podcast.) Then he landed at Fortune at the exact moment when new editor John Huey was turning the magazine into a platform for great longform business story-telling. As a columnist with The New York Times during the aughts, Joe never lost his story-telling chops—Here’s one from 2008 where Steve Jobs calls him a “slime bucket”—while also writing regularly for The New York Times Magazine. Joe’s most recent book, co-written with Ben Strauss, is “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Battle Against the NCAA.” He’s also written three other books, the best known of which is “All The Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis,” co-authored with Bethany McLean. At Bloomberg, Joe writes occasionally for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, where he claims to have a big one in the works. We’re waiting….
As they say on Twitter, I’m so old I can remember when the kind of stories you see here every Sunday didn’t have a fancy name like “longform.” They were just, you know, long stories, and I spent the first half of my career, before I morphed into a columnist, writing them. It was a glorious way to make a living.
My first magazine job, in my 20s, was with The Washington Monthly, under the legendary mentorship of Charlie Peters. But Charlie didn’t care so much about writing chops as he did about critical thinking, so I didn’t begin writing long narratives until I got to Texas Monthly—then and now one of America’s greatest magazines—a few years later. My first assignment was to write a profile of a then-obscure oilman named T. Boone Pickens Jr.
It was 1982, and as it turns out, my timing couldn’t have been better. Pickens was quietly preparing to make one of America’s first hostile takeover attempts, against Cities Service, a company ten times the size of his own. For three weeks, I was allowed to sit in Pickens’ suite in the Waldorf Astoria as he and his merry band of advisors schemed and maneuvered. Although they ultimately failed, the material was hugely dramatic, and I knew I had a great story. I spent the next month or so spinning out a draft that ran to somewhere around 30,000 words.
A few days later, the magazine’s number 2 editor, Nick Lemann—whom I had worked with at The Washington Monthly and was a good friend—came into my office with a stack of white poster boards. He began to pin them, one by one, across my office walls. Then he said, in that half-joking, half-serious way of his: “Joe, you have to think about your story like it’s a movie. Everything is a scene. And every scene has a beginning, a middle and an end.” We then went through the story page by page, pulling out pages that represented each scene and using the poster board to outline the beginning, middle and end of each scene. When we had finished, Nick took all the pages that were left over and ceremoniously dumped them into the rubbish bin. “There’s your story,” he said, pointing at the poster boards.
And that’s how I learned to write long stories. I’ve told this story to young writers I’ve edited over the years—I’ve even used Nick’s poster board technique a few times. I want these young writers to absorb what I absorbed that day: that great material isn’t enough, that long stories require structure and scenes—and that even though the writer faces limitless possibilities when she first stares at the blank page, the final product should feel as though there was no other possible way to tell the story properly. When I think back on my magazine-writing career, I can’t help but feel lucky. I had great editors along the way—not just Nick, but Paul Burka, Dan Okrent, John Huey, Tim Smith and Vera Titunik—but I also worked in magazines at a time when they were still chock-a-block with advertising. You could write a long story and your colleagues applauded instead of groaned at how difficult it would be to jam it in the magazine or how much would have to be cut.
After the internet bubble ended in 2000, magazine advertising started to disappear and everything changed. Story-telling gave way to truncated articles that could fit into a preordained space. Long-form writers left the field to write movie scripts or make a living in some non-literary way. I had the strong sense 15 years or so ago that great longform magazine writers were becoming fewer and fewer, as the demands of the industry made them obsolete.
That is not true anymore, of course. There is a renaissance of great magazine writing, led by such terrific young writers as Taffy Brodesser-Akner of The New York Times and Rachel Aviv of The New Yorker. Maybe the reason is that you don’t have to edit the guts out of a story to publish on the internet. Maybe it’s that that name, “longform,” has given long stories a status they didn’t previously have. Or maybe it’s that the new generation of magazine writers are just so damn good that when you start one of their stories, you can’t put them down. Enjoy.
What a gift we lovers of great magazine stories were given this week. To memorialize the 72nd anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, The New Yorker posted John Hersey’s 31,000 word, 1946 epic, Hiroshima. Hersey is one of my favorite writers (for fun sometime, track down his delightful piece about Bernard Baruch spending a day at Saratoga), and this is his masterpiece. It is an astonishing piece of reporting, beautifully rendered—and it shows that long before Tom Wolfe arrived on the scene, Hersey was practicing what would later be known as The New Journalism. In fact, I would say he was its true inventor.
Bonus piece: In 2016, Russell Shorto, whose brother-in-law was Hersey’s son, wrote a lovely piece for The New Yorker about Hersey and his most famous story.
“Astrid Holleeder has arresting eyes—they are swimming-pool blue—but that’s all I can reveal about her appearance, because she is in hiding, an exile in her own city, which is Amsterdam.” Tell me you can stop reading after a lede like that. Patrick Radden Keefe at the top of his game.
Here is a stunning statistic, one of many illuminating nuggets found in Franklin Foer’s The Atlantic cover story: the federal government spends $14 billion on all law enforcement agencies put together excluding immigration enforcement. It spends $4 billion more than that—a staggering $18 billion—on immigration enforcement and prosecutions. Foer’s story about the rise of ICE will infuriate you—which is exactly what Foer intends.
MoviePass is the kind of company only Silicon Valley’s most magical thinking could dream up—its economics aren’t just unsound, they’re insane. Katie Notopoulos had the brilliant idea of tracking down people who knew from the start the thing was crazy—and took full advantage. The quotes are LOL funny.
Can I put in a plug for my Indentured co-author Ben Strauss? Of course I can—I’m the guest-editor! As I discovered when we wrote that book, Ben is a talented reporter and first-rate story-teller, as his stories in Politico Magazine over the last year or so have also illustrated. This is the last you’re likely to see of those, however, as Ben was just hired to cover sports media for The Washington Post. Kid’s going places.
Bonus: When Indentured came out in 2016, Sports Illustratedexcerpted the chapter about the attempt by the Northwestern football team to unionize. Although it has my name on it as well as Ben’s, truth is this is his chapter start to finish. It may be my favorite in the book.
Until longform became “a thing,” medium-sized regional newspapers like The News & Observer of Raleigh (daily circ 69,000) almost never published deeply-reported narratives like this one. The fact that they do now, at least occasionally, is good for journalism and good for America. This tale of a college football player who got “concussed” out of the game isn’t just a terrific story, it’s an important one.
Okay, so the headline sucks. Don’t let that stop you from reading this latest account from reporter Dan Alexander on Wilbur Ross’s sleazy ways. The gist of the story is that our country’s commerce secretary regularly tried to cheat partners and others out of—are you sitting down for this?—more than $120 million while on Wall Street. And to think, before joining the Trump administration, he was actually considered a great investor.
Remember when President Trump “saved” those jobs at Carrier? Nelson Schwartz has been chronicling the aftermath ever since. His latest installment is his saddest yet. (Note the casual use of the first person in what is essentially a news story. When I joined the Times in 2004, it was unheard of. Now it is common. I like it.)
Look, I know I’m biased, but as a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, I swell with pride every time I see a story like this. Bloomberg News and Bloomberg BusinessWeek are regularly publishing longform business sagas of the sort that used to be owned by The Wall Street Journal and Fortune. My old Fortune boss, John Huey, wanted stories that were full of surprises—"discovery" he used to call it. This amazing story is nothing but discovery.
So it turns out that three of Donald Trump’s buddies and Mar-a-Lago members–who are not in the government—are secretly setting policy at the VA. There have been lots of Trump administration exposes since January 2017, but this one ranks right up there with the best of them.
I’m not including this story because I’m a long-time critic of the NCAA cartel, where everyone makes millions except the players. And I’m not including it because it’s another sterling Bloomberg BusinessWeek narrative. I’m including it because I learned a ton, and you will too.
I always get a little thrill when I read a really good story by a writer I’ve never heard of. (Sorry Brandon; I’m not a Bleacher Report regular.) It means the universe of good narrative writers is still expanding. Sneed got me to care about both Kate Upton and Justin Verlander—no small feat.
A very long time ago, my friend Geoff O’Gara took over the editorship of High Country News, and helped rev up its ambition, both for reporting and stylish writing. This beautiful essay about facing climate change in the driest of places shows that four decades later, the paper can still produce small miracles.
It would be criminal to end this edition of The Sunday Long Read without including a Wired story. Aside from The New Yorker—where editor Nick Thompson used to work—I can’t think of a magazine that publishes more terrific narratives. This one is a classic—the kind of beautifully structured story that I’ve always loved to write—and read.
"Astrid Holleeder has arresting eyes—they are swimming-pool blue—but that’s all I can reveal about her appearance, because she is in hiding, an exile in her own city, which is Amsterdam. For the past two years, she has lived in a series of furnished safe houses. She prefers buildings with basement parking, in order to minimize her exposure during the brief transit to a bulletproof car. She bought the car used, for fifteen thousand euros. She also owns two bulletproof vests. She thinks a lot about how she might be assassinated, gaming out fatal scenarios. Whenever she stops at a red light and an unfamiliar vehicle sharks up alongside her, she clutches the wheel, her heart hammering. Then the light changes, and she exhales and keeps moving."
Jo Piazza is a journalist, podcaster, author of fiction and nonfiction books, and writer of personal essays. Her latest book—her eighth—is a novel called Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, and it’s a fascinating look at what it takes for a woman to run for national office. She talks with Don about how she learned to be a good reporter covering celebrities, how her novel is influencing voters, and how the book might have been different if Hillary Clinton had won.
Charles Bukowski was one of the most disgusting human beings to ever live, and I mean that as a compliment. This rambling profile of the post-beat, working class, heterosexual perv poet by Glenn Esierly made me sit up and take notice in my youth. If that doesn't attract you to the man, let me allow him to make the sale directly to you. "Women can be awfully time-consuming. And when you're a poet, they expect ya to go around spouting all this grand, glorious, profound stuff all the time about the meaning of life. Well, Jesus, I'm not like that. What can I tell 'em? I wanna fuck 'em, that's all. So after they're with ya four or five days and the most profound thing you've said is, 'Hey, baby, ya forgot to flush the toilet,' they think to themselves, 'What the hell kinda poet is this?' ”
My kind of poet.
Classic Read curator Jack Shafer writes about media for Politico.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren was a lyrically written and excellent book from a geochemist, geobiologist, and professor who studies trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Jahren writes in the beginning how she grew up the daughter of a scientist in small-town Minnesota, 100 miles from Minneapolis and how science appealed to her when young, with it being so much about doing and working with things.
The book is about science and Jahren's love of it, but even more so, it's about her life and a friendship and work partnership that she formed while still a graduate student. There are great tales of she and her colleague Bill acting as co-conspirators in life and work, and traveling the world, with stops in Atlanta, Baltimore, the Arctic, Norway, and Hawaii. In many ways, the book is like a road trip story featuring two people on the same wavelength, both in how they interacted with each other and with students, teaching them to get into the muck and dive into their work. Jahren describes her work partner as being someone eclectic, loyal, and interesting, and it's really compelling reading on both he and their relationship.
Jahren comes across as an excellent writer, with phrases such as "raising a child is essentially one long, slow agony of letting go" and in describing leaving her house to go work in the lab that she'll "use the other half of her heart," but what feels to stand out the the most in the book is how it's surprising. The surprise comes from how the subject very much outside the mainstream, with it about a strong female geochemist who studies nature, and how the relationship between the lab partners seems to go a different direction than what might be expected following conventional wisdom. Related to this idea of surprising, there's also very much something to coming across a book that feels it could be described as an unexpected gem of great writing.
Dave Stark has been keeping track of great writing on his blog, wordswrittendown.com, since 2008. Send us a fan letter about something—anything—you love and we might feature it in a future newsletter!
Documenting Hate: Charlottesville revisits the 2017 Charlottesville rally and examines the white supremacists and Neo-Nazis who participated in this landmark moment for race relations.
As the first film of an ambitious collaboration between ProPublica and Frontline, this installment delivers a raw and often uncomfortable look at the violence and seeks to identify the identities of those present. Worth your time among all the other content out there revisiting what happened a year ago.
Orange County register staff photographer Mark Rightmire captured the overwhelming, ominous state of emergency in California this week in a single, mind-bending image on Aug. 8 of a plane dropping fire retardant over homes in Riverside County. The state’s record-breaking fire season has produced a number of surreal photographs, but Rightmire’s timing in a color-saturated sky is downright Apocalyptic. The immense size of the plane and its close proximity to the house paints the David-and-Goliath odds facing the firefighters in the foreground. Started as a small fire in the Holy Jim Canyon area on Aug. 6, the week-long fire has grown in size each day, spreading to more than 10,200 acres.
Patrick Farrell, the curator of The Sunday Still, is the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winner for Breaking News Photography for The Miami Herald, where he has worked since 1987. He is currently a Distinguished Executive-in-Residence in Emerson College’s Department of Journalism.
In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court ended its term and went on summer recess. On the first Monday of October, the Supreme Court will reconvene and begin adding new cases for review. One potential case that could make its way to the Supreme Court pertains to "sanctuary cities" in California. The federal government has sued California in connection with three laws enacted by the state. The federal government claims that each law violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution and is invalid. In a ruling dated July 4, 2018, and publicly released a day later, a U.S. District Court judge in the Eastern District of California made an initial ruling in the case, partially upholding some—but not all—of California's laws at issue.
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.
Occasionally, an oddly placed word or well-executed turn of phrase will slow my scrolling thumb when I peruse social media. As it turns out, "thoughtful jangle-pop" is one such thumb-catching term. The inventive Tweeter employed that phrase to describe Chicago's Sunshine Boys, and I'm here to tell you, it's a pinpoint accurate description.
Consisting of inde-rock vets Dag Juhlin, Jackie Schimmel and Freda Love, the group's 2018 debut record Blue Music is a sunny scoop of guitar-driven power pop. Unquestionably, these tunes would've fit nicely onto Clinton era-defining movie soundtracks for both Singles and Reality Bites. If the sun-cracked CD carrier you once kept in your car had any Sugar, Plimsouls or Posies in it, this record is calling your '90s-loving name. The same applies even if your more current tastes include the sweetness of Canada's effervescent Alvvays.
And indeed, as the Tweeter suggested, these songs are as thoughtful as they are pretty. Juhlin reportedly wrote much of the record in the wake of his mother's passing and as his son graduated high school, two significant marks on anyone's timeline bound to propel an artist into work mode.
Long Play curator Kelly Dearmore is the Music Critic for the Dallas Morning News. Yes, he's heard your son's demo tape, and he thinks it's fantastic.
Two of Brazil's greatest singers, Caetano Veloso and Joyce Moreno, sing the Baden Powell classic, Samba De Bencao. If you like Brazilian music, this is as good as it gets.
The Sunday LimeRick from Tim Torkildson
The Washington Post:"It’s summer in Washington, so no one smells all that great. But this night was different from your average gathering of sweaty bodies. I was about to enter a pheromone party, where strangers would be inhaling my scent via a T-shirt I’d been wearing."
Tim: A young man who sweated profusely
bragged of his prowess quite loosely—
His pheromones bred
like rabbits, he said,
and gave him the charm of a Bruce Lee.
Sunday Limerick writer Tim Torkildson is a retired circus clown who fiddles with rhyme. All his verses can be found at Tim's Clown Alley.
The Sund&y Ampers&nd from Nick Aster
The Sunday Ampersand is chosen by Nick Aster. Nick most recently served as founder of TriplePundit.com, a leading publication focused on sustainability and corporate social responsibility.
Founder, Curator: Don Van Natta Jr. Producer, Curator: Jacob Feldman Producer, Curator: Étienne Lajoie Senior Recycling Editor: Jack Shafer Senior Long View Editor: Justine Gubar Senior Photo Editor: Patrick Farrell Senior Music Editor: Kelly Dearmore Senior Limerick Editor: Tim Torkildson Senior Podcast Editor: Jody Avirgan Senior Editor of Esoterica: Ryan M. Rodenberg
Digital Team: Nation Hahn, Nickolaus Hines, Megan McDonell, Alexa Steinberg Podcast Team: Peter Bailey-Wells, Cary Barbor, Julian McKenzie, Jonathan Yales Campus Editor: Peter Warren
Contributing Editors: Bruce Arthur, Shaun Assael, Nick Aster, Alex Belth, Sara J. Benincasa, Sara Blask, Greg Bishop, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Maria Bustillos, Chris Cillizza, Anna Katherine Clemmons, Rich Cohen, Pam Colloff, Maureen Dowd, Charles Duhigg, Brett Michael Dykes, Geoff Edgers, Lea Goldman, Michael N. Graff, 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, Chris Lehmann, Will Leitch, Glynnis MacNicol, Drew Magary, Erik Malinowski, Jonathan Martin, Betsy Fischer Martin, Ana Menendez, Kevin Merida, Heidi N. Moore, Eric Neel, Joe Nocera, Ashley R. Parker, Anne Helen Petersen, Jo Piazza, Joe Posnanski, S.L. Price, Jennifer Romolini, Julia Rubin, Albert Samaha, Bruce Schoenfeld, Michael Schur, Joe Sexton, Jacqui Shine, Rachel Sklar, Dan Shanoff, Ben Smith, Matt Sullivan, Wright Thompson, Pablo Torre, Kevin Van Valkenburg, John A. Walsh, Seth Wickersham and Karen Wickre.
Header Image: Tyler Hicks
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.